Principles for first-time voters


Three things to consider as you prepare to vote

Let’s face it: voting can be a difficult, frustrating and unsatisfying experience.

How do you sort out all of the conflicting claims coming from politicians more dedicated to snaring your vote than openly explaining their positions? What issues or principles should you use in deciding for whom to vote?

How do we see through the highly negative 30-second TV ads that often distort more than they inform? Does voting responsibly mean spending half your time between now and the election reading and studying up on the candidates and issues?

Let me suggest three principles that will help any voter but especially a young person voting for the first time.

1. Make a list

First, be an informed voter. To vote in ignorance may result in voting for candidates who would take our country in the exact opposite direction you desire.

Television commercials put on by the various candidates offer very limited help. Typically self-serving, they distort both the candidate’s and his or her opponent’s positions, and they appeal more to emotions than to thoughtful understanding. Those who put these political ads together are adept at discovering and pushing our emotional buttons, while revealing next to nothing about who a candidate is and what he or she is all about.

Instead, ask yourself what issues you think are most important. Is it the economy? Abortion? The war in Iraq? Make your own list. Doing so will help you avoid two mistakes. One is having the candidates decide for you what is important. If you don’t think about what issues are important to you, you will be informed only about those issues the campaigns choose to emphasize.

The second error you can avoid by making your own list is what has been called single-issue voting. This is picking one issue and voting purely on the basis of it, without ever thinking about or knowing candidates’ positions on other important issues. Even if a candidate takes the right position on one issue that’s important to you, you may totally disagree with the candidate on many other crucial issues.

After putting together a list of your important issues, make use of Web sites that can help you find out the candidates’ positions on those issues. I’ve found this the quickest and often the most accurate way to get such answers. Especially helpful is Vote Smart is a strictly nonpartisan organization. It lists the voting records and positions taken by thousands of candidates running for president, House of Representatives, Senate and state legislatures.

2. Talk about it

The second principle I suggest you follow in voting is to discuss the election and the various candidates with your friends and family. You should not, of course, simply vote the way your friends, parents or other relatives are voting. Your vote is yours; you should not give it away by simply voting the way someone else tells you to vote.

But by discussing issues, candidates’ stands on issues and for whom to vote we all can sharpen our thinking and test the conclusions to which we have come. Others may have insights you’ve missed.

3. Let biblical values guide you

My third suggested principle is that you be guided by biblical values as you make your voting decisions.

This one’s a little more complex. It means you should not simply ask which candidate would be best for you personally or for your pocketbook. It does not mean, however, that you simply go by the church membership of a candidate.

Nor does it mean voting for candidates who have been pictured attending church services or meeting with certain religious leaders. These may only mean that candidates are trying to give themselves a little religious polish without ever having their faith affect either their personal lives or their policy positions.

Rather, try to ask whether a candidate seeks justice for all people—rich and poor, religious and secular, born and unborn.

There is, of course, no one Christian or biblical position on specific issues of the day. Christians will often disagree what justice means on concrete public-policy issues related to the environment, aid to the poor, opposing terrorism, religious freedom for all, and even the details of abortion policy. And that’s OK.

What’s important for the Christian voter to ask is what are the religious beliefs of a candidate and how do those beliefs affect how that candidate views the world and the government’s proper role in it. Three questions are especially important:

  • Do the candidates’ religious beliefs help form a moral compass that guides their actions in both their personal and public lives? If religion is not merely something for show, it should make a difference in candidates’ lives.
  • Do the candidates’ religious beliefs lead them to respect all of human life, in all stages of the human life cycle, from before birth to old age and death? Or do the candidates take a pragmatic approach to human life, holding that potential scientific advancements, individual needs and society’s costs sometimes are more important than protecting and respecting human life?
  • Do the candidates’ religious beliefs sometimes lead them to take positions that differ from what one would expect of a candidate of his or her party? Here I’m thinking of a Republican candidate who may favor stronger protection for the environment or a Democrat who favors vouchers to fund education, including in religious schools. This is a key tip-off. If a candidate marches in lockstep with his or her political party, it indicates that partisan principles rather than biblical principles are his or her guiding force.

It’s my prayer that all voters—young first-timers as well as older voters—will not only vote but do so in an informed, thoughtful manner that takes into account their Christian principles. It is then that Christ will be honored by our actions and citizens.

Stephen V. Monsma, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is a research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, and an emeritus professor of political science at Pepperdine University, Malibu, Calif. His most recent book,Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy, was published by Crossway Books earlier this year. This article was first published in The Banner, a publication of the Christian Reformed Church.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here