So I, like about 15% of New Yorkers, went to the polls today to vote in the Democratic Primary for a number of city wide as well as borough-specific elections. Among them were the office of Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, City Council seats, etc. AKA, the kind of stuff that most of the public just doesn’t care about enough to vote on, let alone get informed about (especially since the Democratic mayoral candidate will likely get squashed by Bloomberg). In my years of becoming more civic minded, I’ve begun to vote regularly in these “smaller” elections, and have come up against a bit of a hurdle. While I’m motivated to vote in these elections, realize that my vote will make a real difference in deciding who gets into office, and understand that these politicians have probably the most impact on the issues immediate to my city ranging from education and real estate development to local environmental laws and criminal justice, I just can’t seem to get motivated enough to actually follow these races.
And so tonight I found myself in the familiar situation of arriving at the Brooklyn Museum (best polling place ever) not really knowing much about the people on the ballot. Last time this happened I figured that I should use the resources I had at hand to become an at least somewhat informed voter, so I sat down on the floor, took out my iPhone, and painstakingly reviewed various articles about the candidates on its small screen.
This time, I thankfully had my laptop with me, and using the museum’s free wifi, was able to do critical last minute research to inform my decisions. I checked the sites of various local organizations that I know to see who they endorsed, as well as the local section of the Times to get their take on who would be best for various offices. Armed with a much greater understanding of who the people on the ballot were and where they stood on various issues, I entered one of those classic New York polling booths, made my selection, and pulled the lever with a sense that I had not only done my civic duty by voting, but didn’t waste my vote as a result of being entirely uninformed.
Now, I acknowledge that I personally could have done a lot better in terms of following these elections, especially recognizing the importance of these local offices and their impact on my work, neighborhood and city. At the same time, I don’t think that I was that unique. People are busy, New Yorkers especially. These candidates have far less resources than those in national Presidential or Congressional races, so we don’t see a lot of advertising from them, save on the day of (the streets were littered with postcards proclaiming various candidates’ virtues today). The mainstream news media does cover them, but not on the front page and not nearly as thoroughly as it does for more prominent elections, as we do live in a market driven media system and the demand isn’t as great for this kind of reportage. As a result the demand for information was left to the last minute for a person like me, and so I approached the problem in the way that seemed to make the most sense given the situation: I got the information at the point of decision.
Doing so, I engaged in what educational theorists call “just in time” learning. This kind of learning is contrasted to “just in case” learning, where the learner learns something on the chance that they might need to know it at a later point, but the situation in which they might apply it is certainly not present, and may never be. For a great example of just in case learning, think back to a good bit of your high school experience. I swear I have never used trigonometry. Anyhow, just in time learning is basically how most people in practical contexts actually manage to get things done, calling on the resources that they need to accomplish a task as they’re working on it.
For example, when I first started my job I had this idea that I should take a class on using the image editing program Photoshop. The level of busyness at work meant that I never got around to it, but as I began to do projects that required me to use it, I would ask my colleagues for a couple of minutes of their time to show me how to get something to work. I know know how to do the kinds of things that I need to when using the program.
So, as opposed to sitting around reading books that might be relevant at some point (though there certainly is a big place for that, and a good learner will figure out the right balance between these two approaches), someone engaged in just in time learning learns the information that is most relevant to the current moment, as opposed to some potential future moment.
My thought, after having my experience this evening, was that perhaps people don’t vote on election day not because they’re too busy, or don’t fully care, but rather that they don’t want to waste their time with something they know nothing about. What if, though, they knew that there was a bank of laptops at the polling station, and that they could look candidates up, just as I had, when that information was most critical? Regardless of this pie in the sky policy idea, down the line the majority of the population will be carrying some sort of device that connects them to the vast amount of information on the net in any case, and so I wonder how civic participation might change if more and more people simply decide to go into that polling station, knowing that they can take a couple of minutes to figure out how they want to vote, as opposed to just skipping the whole process entirely.