Those people who will undoubtedly confront you on Tuesday with printed ballots as you walk into the polls are remnants of an earlier era, that, like all earlier eras, seems so simple, maybe even kinder and gentler.
Back then, the top-of-the-ticket voting orders came from the national political parties. They filtered down to the state level and finally the local operatives -- political clubs, unions and such -- gaining additional commands along the way.
The final result was a printed ballot containing the names of the approved candidates. It marched out to the cadence of walking-around money and made its way into the hands of voters who, except on rare occasions, followed its instructions. Clean, neat, simple. No thinking required. Someone else did that for you.
Today, it almost seems like an insult when someone hands you one of those ballots, as if a list of names on a piece of paper given to you a few seconds before entering the voting booth should have any effect on your choices. Hey, you're an intelligent person, you've been following this stuff, you've already made up your mind by the time you get to the polling place.
But consider the fact that some analysts blame our gridlock government on the fact that a similarly disciplined structure in Congress broke down in the reform-mined post-Watergate class legislators.
They don't listen to their leadership like they used to. Maybe they vote their consciences, maybe they vote in their district's best interest, maybe for the good of their country, maybe to get more PAC money, or maybe -- and here's where a lot of the smart money lands -- to get re-elected next year. Whatever, they don't do what they are told, they come back to their homes telling voters how they fought for you against all those Washington bigwigs, and nothing gets done.
The problem is that, like always, the downside of freedom is responsibility. If we as voters join our congressional representatives in no longer entrusting our selections to the political hierarchy, then we have a duty to make our own choices as informed as possible.
So, in place of the Sneedward Democratic Club's official ballot, you get a Voter's Guide. Obviously, a few paragraphs in a guide like this is not an appropriate place to learn everything a voter needs to know on Tuesday. But it does help with another part of freedom's underbelly -- confusion.
It is easy when facing that voting machine to have trouble remembering exactly who is who and what is what in the bewildering array of small print in front of you. Was that Question F or Proposition 6 you were for? Or maybe it was an amendment of some sort.
Moreover, these capsule descriptions make a good program for following the Tuesday night fights. When the results come tumbling in from some far-flung district, you can make a quick check to see who's on first and what's going on in the Second.
There is another very useful function to boiling down political candidates to brief descriptions. In general, the essence of who they are and what they stand for is what remains after such a distillation.
All too often that essence can be lost in the daily hubbub of the campaign. In fact, all too often campaigns are designed to provide such camouflage, hiding a candidate's actual beliefs behind a broadside of mud or a flurry of fluff. One paragraph on a candidate can give you a quick pre-election reality check.
An overview can also provide a picture of the election's terrain that is hard to see when the daily campaign coverage is focused on individual bits of topography. And that might reveal that the geopolitical contours of this race are not necessarily those sculpted into conventional wisdom by the gaggle of pundits who have been clogging the airwaves and op-ed pages.
Consider, for instance, that this is supposed to be both The Year of the Woman and The Year of the Non-Incumbent. Then look at the situation in Maryland. The only incumbent who has been defeated is a woman -- that would be Beverly B. Byron who lost in the Democratic primary as she was seeking her eighth term in the House representing the state's 6th District. Go figure.
As for the non-incumbent stuff, it appears that the only other congressional incumbent to lose will be Tom McMillen or Wayne T. Gilchrest. And that's because they are running against each ++ other. In all the other races, conventional wisdom tells us that the incumbents are headed back to Washington, where once again they will fight against the Washington establishment that's messing everything up. But remember that conventional wisdom has taken something of a beating this year.
It seems like only yesterday that George Bush's return trip to the White House was a stroll across the desert sands. Democrats were fleeing from the presidential race like it was the Titanic and a big iceberg was looming ahead. They made the mistake of listening to conventional wisdom.
Of course, it was only yesterday that Bill Clinton's victory was assured, the only question the size of his mandate, that Mr. Bush was failing to connect with voters and that Ross Perot was just a loony egotistical quitter. That's conventional wisdom. It's got to be right. Doesn't it?
It's getting too confusing. Where's that guy with the ballot?
Doesn't it tell me who to vote for?