[Ed Note: The Citizen first ran this piece before the May, 2015 primary. It continues to be relevant.]
Voter turnout in Philadelphia, especially during city elections, is depressingly low. In May of 2013, only 11.4 percent of registered voters actually bothered to vote. There are a ton of reasons why. Sometimes, there aren’t any interesting races (looking at you, 2013!). Often, people have no idea who the candidates are or how to tell them apart. You can just forget about the judicial elections, with scores of anonymous candidates running for dozens of positions with little future public accountability. And for many people, especially the cynical among us (guilty as charged), we feel like politicians just don’t care about us, and so choosing between one candidate who doesn’t care and another who doesn’t care feels like an exercise in futility.
If you’ve ever found yourself not voting for any of these reasons, I have one thing to say: I hear you, and I don’t blame you. This is not about whether or not voting is the right thing to do. I’m interested in something much more sinister: subverting the system.
I don’t care who you vote for or why. And you know what? Neither do politicians. A completely uninformed vote counts just as much as the vote of someone who follows Philadelphia politics so closely that it borders on masochism. And politicians can’t tell the difference!
I’ll give it to you straight. Politicians care about two things: money, and money. They need money to help them get re-elected so that they can keep making money. Money helps buy votes. Money builds political machines that get voters to turn out for them. And for the most part, politicians don’t really care who gets screwed along the way.
When it comes to elections, politicians care about counting to a number higher than their opponent. They want to use their money—the thing they hold most dear—as efficiently and effectively as possible. That means that they need to target their money into TV ads, mailers, phone banks, and sample ballots that will turn out the largest number of supporters.
Supporters, of course, are voters. When politicians decide where to target their efforts, they look for large chunks of the population that are likely to vote. Racial, ethnic, religious, and age-based groups are all great examples. The larger the group, and the larger the voter turnout within that group, the more attention politicians will pay to them. Unions, for example, contain enormous groups of voters who make themselves heard with their money and their votes. Small groups, and groups with low turnout, get little to no attention.
Unfortunately for politicians, they have to actually do some governing between elections. And they know that whatever decisions they make while “doing” their actual “jobs” will go a long way to determining which chunks of voters they can count on in the next election. So, where do they target their policies? To the large chunks of voters who turn out in high numbers. Who do they ignore? Small groups and groups that don’t vote.
Think about regular (non-political) TV ads for a second. Have you ever watched a TV show and realized that none of the commercials are targeted at you? Maybe you’re a woman watching an Eagles game and can’t figure out why you’d want so many cars, beers, and erectile dysfunction drugs at the same time. Or maybe you’re a millennial watching a rerun of Columbo and can’t possibly imagine what you’d do with so many Depends or what in the world “mesothelioma” is.
You, my friend, are an ignored audience; advertisers know that people like you probably aren’t watching this show, so they don’t target any ads to your interests. But if millennials everywhere started tuning in to Columbo—which they absolutely should because that show is awesome—then suddenly septuagenarians would be wondering why they’re seeing so many ads for cell phones, tablets, and other devices that they have no hope of ever learning how to use.
Politicians are just like ad men. If you find that your elected officials aren’t passing any laws that speak to your interests, it’s because they know you’re not watching their show—you’re not voting. Our municipal unions have some of the strongest protections in the country because politicians know that if they cross them, they’ll lose votes and money by the barrel. Social Security and Medicare will never go away because old people vote like crazy. Poor people don’t get shit because they don’t vote. The same is true for millennials and tons of other special-interest groups.
Ah, voting. Right back where we started. This is the part where I tell you to vote. Sorry, I mean based on the headline, you had to know this was coming. But my reasoning is different than most other people’s. I don’t care one bit if you’re an informed voter. I don’t care who you vote for or why. And you know what? Neither do politicians. A completely uninformed vote counts just as much as the vote of someone who follows Philadelphia politics so closely that it borders on masochism. And politicians can’t tell the difference!
Being heard isn’t about who you vote for. It’s about you and the people in your demographic groups voting. For anyone. Literally anyone. Uninformed voters often fear accidentally voting in the wrong person, but think about it: if you and everyone like you votes totally randomly, your votes will all even out and you’ll have no real effect on the outcome of the election.
When politicians decide where to target their efforts, they look for large chunks of the population that are likely to vote. Racial, ethnic, religious, and age-based groups are all great examples. The larger the group, and the larger the voter turnout within that group, the more attention politicians will pay to them.
But, the next time around, politicians will definitely notice that your group voted, and they’ll pander to you in the meantime. Voting could literally make you money if your group gets a tax break or increased funding or some other government benefit. And the best part may be that you’re totally screwing with those politicians. They’ll throw millions at you every year, with no clue that they’re having no effect on your vote. You never have to pay attention to elections; you just have to show up to them.
Take marijuana, for example. Well, don’t take the marijuana just yet, finish reading this first. No politician in his or her right mind would have ever considered legalizing marijuana prior to 2008. The only demographic it would seem to benefit is young people, and young people didn’t ever vote. But, along came Obama, and out to vote came millennials; suddenly politicians with as little awareness of their surroundings as Philadelphia’s City Council managed to find a way to decriminalize pot.
Before Tuesday, I really do hope that you’re able to research the candidates that are running for each office. But if you can’t, don’t stay home. Go vote anyway. Vote for literally anyone. Pick your favorite numbers, vote for the ones with the shortest names—any method you want to use is fine. Just push random buttons. You’ll be better off for it. And the politicians won’t know what hit them.