Go vote, but don't screw it up (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at andy@andyvance.com.

IT is officially an election year, and with the passing of the "Hawkeye Cauci," a.k.a., the Iowa caucuses, presidential politics are likely to dominate the political news for the remainder of the year.

The occasion of Iowans casting their ballot for a Republican presidential candidate reminded me of two very important and seemingly contradictory truths.

One, the average person really hates politics (if not politicians as a social class); two, the average person really needs to pay a lot more attention to politics to be an informed, intelligent voter.

What specifically occasioned this intuition was a discussion on Facebook about GOP hopeful Rick Santorum, the former congressman and senator from Pennsylvania. After trailing a good number of the other Republican hopefuls in the major polls of 2011, Santorum somehow caught a tailwind in the weeks leading up to the Iowa sweepstakes and finished just eight votes behind winner Mitt Romney.

Generally considered a fiscal and social conservative, Santorum garnered the attention of many of my social media colleagues for his alleged support of, or at least apparent support from, the animal rights lobby. Folks in my social circle were concerned with reports that the 53-year-old politico was somehow tied to animal rights groups and that Iowa voters should embrace the "buyer beware" maxim.

Most posts referenced a June 2005 report in USA Today discussing Santorum's sponsorship of legislation dealing with, among other things, regulation of so-called "puppy mills" and further mentioning praise and contributions from groups like the political action committee Humane USA.

So, the question was posed: If Santorum is in bed with the radical animal rights lobby (and, by the way, we don't know whether he is), why aren't the major agricultural organizations doing more to inform voters?

There are two very simple answers to this question.

First, the key agriculture policy organizations are, by and large, doing a good deal to inform their members of the major candidates' policy positions. The American Farm Bureau Federation, for example, publishes scorecards rating legislators based on their votes on issues deemed significant to its membership.

Leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the Iowa Farm Bureau likewise published candidates' responses to questions on agricultural issues. Also, the National Corn Growers Assn. rolled out its Corn Caucus Project "to encourage grower involvement and promote grower interests in the 2012 presidential primary process."

Even so, as one of my colleagues who works on Capitol Hill put it, many groups (not just those in our industry) stay out of the political fray until the field is narrowed a bit.

Furthermore, it is difficult to nail down a candidate on every issue during an election year, so unless the candidate has a voting "track record," voters may be left with inferences and guesses as to how a candidate might lead on a given issue.

The second answer to the question is that most voters need to do their own homework rather than relying on said groups to tell them how to vote.

In the online discussion I mentioned, it was apparent that many folks wanted someone to "get to the bottom" of the Santorum question. Is he aligned with animal rights extremists or not? My colleague reversed the question: Rather than relying on the agricultural policy groups to do the digging, why aren't the agricultural journalists asking the tough questions?

So, I did a little digging of my own. Actually, I typed six or seven words into Google and learned more in skimming a handful of articles from the past few years than I had in reading a hundred postings on Facebook.

My gut reaction? The agricultural media needs to ask more questions of the candidates, and I suspect that as the political season marches on, they will. Remember that many of us were still covering the 2011 harvest until very, very recently and presumably were focused on production agriculture rather than presidential politics.

That does not, however, absolve us from our responsibility to be informed and intelligent voters. Voting, especially when electing the leader of the free world, is one of the most important God-given and constitutionally guaranteed rights in the history of man, and far too many of us take it for granted.

There is a great deal at stake every time we step into the voting booth. Don't ignore the fact that every right comes with an accompanying responsibility. You have the right to vote and the responsibility not to screw it up when you do.

Volume:84 Issue:02

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