I used to work in politics. It was unglamorous, but one thing it seemed to do in the eyes of my friends was give me the sheen of knowledge. People would call me as Election Day approached and ask me, “Who should I vote for?”
My days of holding the cell phones of office-holders are over, but the questions have persisted. People ask me things about politics and current events. I try to be helpful and point to useful articles so people can get their own sense of what’s going on.
But often, such conversations take a bitter turn. People are disgruntled — disappointed with the choices on offer, underwhelmed by the policy pronouncements, skeptical of the promises, fed up with the news coverage that tells us what the latest poll said. More than anything, though, many of my friends seem exasperated that the political machine just grinds on regardless of what ordinary people think or do.
It’s clear that, as individual citizens, people feel they don’t really count when it comes to politics. In the vast majority of counties in the vast majority of states, it will not affect the presidency whether any single person votes or not. For most states, it is almost a foregone conclusion which party’s presidential nominee will get the electors. Maryland’s electors, for example, just aren’t going to be thrown Giuliani’s way. (Which is not to say I have no duty to vote anyway.)
Through it all, well-meaning organizations try proposing systemic fixes that seem to share the core attributes of unwieldiness, na√Øvet√©, and improbability.
It is time to throw a few life hacks into the mix. No, I am not talking about the Diebold machines.
First applied to the behavior of super-programmers in 2004 by journalist Danny O’Brien, through everyday usage the term “life hack” has grown to mean anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever way. Life hackers take tools and ideas that, in their basic state, only partially work — and make them useful. It all sounds very cyber and Web 2.0, but it is really a basic human impulse. Perhaps the first person to popularize life hacks was the original Heloise, whose Hints have improved the lives of millions of people: Don’t wait for S.C. Johnson’s new version of Windex, instead make your own.
Life hacks are things you can do with existing, or little known, tools. They don’t require a big change in “the system” or some new law or regulation. You can do them on your own.
That in mind, here are a few vote-hacks that lone, disgruntled citizens can do that might make their participation feel a little more meaningful. It’s a short list — you can add to it.
Not everyone is cut out to be a life hacker. It takes being comfortable fiddling with things, an inclination to tinker, and a confidence that if it all goes pear-shaped, you can probably fix it. These vote-hacks aren’t for everyone, but they might be for you.
Voting in an early primary state? Start a group to vote in a way that is reflective of political futures markets. Such markets outperform opinion polls when it comes to determining how people will vote. Result: parochial primaries can become proxies for national opinion and we can wring our hands less over the front-loaded primary calendar.
Want more of a choice than just going Red or Blue? If you live in a swing state, swap your vote with someone in another state where the votes actually matter. Result: Minor parties maintain credibility and might even grow.
Weary of dodged questions in candidate forums? Use MeetUp or Craigslist to get together a group of local citizens, big as you can. Everyone agree to ask the same question at the next town hall.
Sick of keeping quiet? Put aside a few dollars a day and, when you’ve got a bunch of money, give it to a local candidate. And then start talking to them about the issues that matter to you. You will be shocked, shocked to hear that candidates actually listen more intently to donors than to voters. Result: You aren’t just some anonymous voter with an opinion.
Of course, it’s not just citizens who are fed up and could use a few tricks. The journalists, candidates, and office-holders I know are fed up too. So, here are a few more hacks:
Journalists: Do not accept quotes from spokespeople. Insist on only talking to the candidate. Your stories may sound less like press releases.
Candidates: Fire your consultants so your campaign is not just a bunch of hired guns.
Office Holders: End all “town hall” meetings with scripted presentations. Set up a desk at the mall and let people talk to you about whatever they want. Don’t invite cameras or press.
Life hacks emerge from the distributed, collective wisdom of people solving problems on their own. So, don’t keep your vote hack to yourself. What have I missed? Post it in the comments section below so others can use it, too.
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces a videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.