Over the next few weeks, people across the Bay Area will either get their hopes up, hold their noses or just cross their fingers and plunge into what is almost invariably an exercise in frustration: They will vote.
Then, Nov. 7, the day after the election, most will heave a sigh of relief and turn their attention back to things they love, that are important or that are urgent, like their job, education or children.
A small number, maybe 1 percent or so, will keep on voting. These people, citizen advocates, understand that Election Day is not the end, but a beginning. It's the day you take on a new employee: You hire or rehire the people who represent you as elected officials in municipal, county, state and federal government.
Just as you would a new employee, the citizen advocates know that if you want your new employee to succeed, you must give them a clear job description and goals. You must supervise them, keep a close and constant watch on their performance and give them frequent direction. If you don't, they are free to do the job in their own way.
This small number of activists, these committed few, drive public policy. Because there are so few who stay engaged after Election Day, they have disproportionate influence. They keep on voting.
These advocates will be the focus of this blog, along with the professional lobbyists who work with them, the government staff who make their appointments and take their phone calls, the elected officials who listen to them, and the academics who study them.
You will not only meet ordinary people of extraordinary influence, but you will also come to see that you, as one person – if you care enough – can have enormous influence on politicians, especially the ones you can vote for. You will see how others achieve influence and learn techniques that will empower you to expand your influence across the state and country.
You will learn how to keep on voting after the election and why merely voting on Election Day is usually not going to make much difference, even though your vote can determine who is elected.
(The one exception is if you are passionate about one of the initiatives or referendums that actually write specific law for California – but that's a bog, not a blog, and we won't go there.)
Here's why merely voting for candidates on Election Day doesn't have much impact: When it comes to selecting or electing people to represent you, you only get to vote every two or four or six years, depending on the office.
Laws are passed or changed in between elections.
Moreover, each individual you can vote for has only limited power to create change. Consider the most visible example, the president.
No matter who wins, you are likely to be disappointed. All the promises the candidates make, all their sincere intentions, collapse in the face of the fact that 535 voting members of the U.S. Congress also have skin in the game. In California this year, you get to vote for just two people who will go to Congress, one for the House and one for Senate.
Across the country, candidates are running to become one of 435 voting representatives and 33 senators up for election. Historically, more than 85 percent of those in office are re-elected.
Of course, because of term limits for California Assembly members, you have a more frequent shot at influencing the outcome. But even with the newly redrawn districts and election system, most of the elections have been decided in the primary. Depending on how you count, on Nov. 6, California has maybe eight competitive state Assembly races and three for the Senate.
Thus, the primary is actually your most powerful vote because the turnout is so low: Only 31.1 percent of registered voters voted in the June 5 California primary. This compares with the general election turnout on Nov. 2, 2010, of 59.6 percent.
So once in while, your vote can be important in deciding who wins. Please vote. But understand that if that is all you do, you aren't likely to make much difference.
Next time: six reasons why voting is your least effective method to influence public policy.