Language about wasted votes is self-defeating

Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Two polls released last week indicate the race for Alaska's U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs. The Anchorage Daily News described it as a dead heat and three-way horserace. While we're accustomed this type of language during political campaigns, democracy isn't a spectator sport. And contrary to the results on Election Day, it's not over when it's over.

Republican nominee Joe Miller must have figured this out by now. Only six weeks ago he was basking in the glory of defeating incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primary. He was crowned the favorite to win the general election. Now Miller is afraid to face questions from the media about his past. And it's turned into a three-way race with polls showing only a few percentage points separating Miller, Murkowski and Democrat Scott McAdams.

Before the primary, conventional wisdom had Murkowski easily winning reelection. The odds against any Democrat unseating her were enormous. Those odds changed immediately when Miller was declared the winner of the primary. McAdams believed he had a fighting chance to stage another upset. It's still quite possible even with Murkowski's re-entrance as a write-in candidate. But to listen to some registered Democrats, McAdams can't possibly win.

At least, that's the opinion of Donald Craig Mitchell, an Anchorage attorney, who in a Huffington Post column wondered about the risks of remaining loyal to his chosen party. He writes that if Alaska Democrats "believe that Joe Miller is a dangerous ideologue who must be defeated" then "a vote for Scott McAdams is a wasted vote."

Alaskan Democrats should be accustomed to watching their chosen candidate for Congress suffer the agony of defeat on Election Day. They've had only one winner in 35 years. So let's stop the fear mongering and scour our conscience before we cast a ballot for a candidate who opposes our most passionately held beliefs. Shouldn't we model such idealism if we expect our elected representatives to vote that way whenever they're considering legislation that affects our lives?

To be fair, Mitchell didn't declare he was voting for Murkowski to stave off a Miller win. But language about wasted votes is self-defeating. It pushes us toward disengagement and apathy, the twin eroding forces of self governance.

Besides, even if we're strongly opposed to Miller's candidacy, this election isn't going to produce a mandate that empowers the tea party agenda. Our founding fathers created the Senate as a deliberative body that would prevent such reactionary shifts in the nation's governing philosophies. And even if the Republicans do take control of the Senate, Miller will have no muscle to impose his far-right conservative views on the entire GOP, let alone convince the remaining Democrats to abandon their convictions.

We aren't a government of the people if we merely pick who represents us in Congress. Yet by treating our elections as if they are the Super Bowl of public decision making we create a natural tendency for many to tune out as soon as they're over. Whoever we send to Washington isn't going to rid us of our most pressing problems by pushing through new legislation or repealing old laws. It's a fantasy to expect it to be so simple.

So to paraphrase Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi, why do we bother counting the votes at all if doesn't seem to matter who wins? It's because elections are only part of the process of democracy. And even Lombardi understood that although winning is the goal, "you need faith and discipline when you're not a winner" because "if you can accept losing, you can't win".

A culture as diverse and complicated as we've become demands more work of its people. Win or lose on Election Day, we've got to stay engaged for the long haul if we expect to improve the way our society functions. And it all begins with knowing and voting our conscience.

Of course the real wasted vote is the one that's never cast. And there's plenty of that to water down our nation's claim to be the beacon of democracy. But voting for an alternative candidate because we're afraid ours can't win means we've already lost much more than an election.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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