Voting requires careful study by those who do it right

Published 6:29 pm Tuesday, August 25, 2020

It’s an age-old complaint, and those of us who pay even the slightest attention to politics have heard it many times. Voters desperately want, but never can find, the perfect candidate, whether it’s for Town Council, Board of Supervisors, state legislature, Congress or president.

The reason is pretty simple. Those who choose to run locally and those who select those who will run on behalf of political parties for larger races (the political parties) almost always fall short of our expectations. Unfortunately, too many potential voters decide that if the perfect candidate isn’t running they just won’t vote. That’ll show those politicians, right? But of course, that just weakens the system more.

As long as there are elections, there will be flawed candidates. There always have been, and always will be. Our job as voters is to select the best available to us and help get them elected by voting for them. That may not meet your ideal, but it’s the best you’re going to be able to do.

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I recently heard a voter’s choice described as being akin to taking a city bus and deciding which one will get you closest to your destination if none of them goes directly there.

I’ve been a sailor most of my life, and I would compare picking a candidate to that sport. Sailing, like politics, is often a slog to windward, a battle to get to a given destination that almost always seems to be upwind of where we are. Since a sailboat can’t go directly into the wind. It must “tack” back and forth across the wind, eventually arriving at that windward destination.

In doing so, a sailor tries to determine the “favored tack,” the one that will take you closer to your destination than will the opposite tack. Picking the favored tack can dramatically improve your progress and your chances of getting where you want to be.

That, basically, is what every voter has to decide during every election. Which candidate offers the best option, or in the worst cases, stinks the least.

The voter who sits on his hands, waiting for the “perfect” candidate is like the sailor who won’t leave the dock unless the wind speed and direction are perfect. That voter — like that sailor — will be sitting there a long time, and society will move on without him or her, and in a direction he or she most likely thinks is wrong.

But I may be getting ahead of myself. Picking the favored tack in sailing takes a careful study of conditions, and picking the political candidate who can best help steer Virginia or the nation also takes study.

Many people, of course, pick the Democratic or Republican candidate because they are supporters of one party or the other. Party loyalists are necessary for a political system based on parties to work, but being so hidebound that you can’t look beyond party labels is a terrible type of blindness. Fortunately, a growing percentage of people in the U.S. consider themselves independents. They say that they vote for the candidate, not the party — and some actually do.

But being an independent voter is more work than being a knee-jerk party loyalist. It means we have to actually evaluate candidates, and we should do that with some degree of objectivity.

Here’s a suggestion. Walk away from the hyperpartisan commentaries that flood the airways while you are trying to make your choices. Whether the office is for governor (not this year), Congress or the presidency, do your own research. Take a serious look at what incumbents have done, and what challengers are likely to do.

Reject advertising that is aimed at tearing down the opposition and look instead for ads that enlighten you as to a candidate’s goals. Listen to scheduled one-on-one debates. They can be quite informative.

Once you have done your best to evaluate the candidates, you’re ready to select the “favored tack” that you will take. It may not turn out to be as good as you hope it will be, but you will have done all you can as a voter to make the system work.

(I need to give proper credit for this column idea. Former Times Editor Diana McFarland moved to Montana early this year and each week sends me the Boulder Monitor, which she now edits. A letter to the editor by Boulder resident Sally Clancy compared voting to getting on a city bus and picking the route that leads closest to your destination. I want to thank her for the idea and Diana for forwarding it.)

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is