Sunday, March 08, 2009


Several months ago I received an e-mail from an acquaintance who is the head of a certain organization. She wanted me to vote for a young entrepreneur, an alumnus of her institution, who had been nominated as a leading young entrepreneur.

"Please log onto the link below and vote for him as this year's best young entrepreneur," she wrote in a mass e-mail to seemingly everyone she knew.

She was pulling for the young man to win the contest, regardless of her e-mail recipients' perception of the other candidates, and it was clear that his winning would yield significant bragging rights for her organization.

I was reminded of her e-mail when a reader from Tustin, Calif., wrote to tell me of an e-mail he had received from a friend of a distant friend. This friend-of-a-friend wanted him to vote for a video created by his son's first-grade class, which had been entered in a contest to win $25,000 in technology equipment for their classroom. The class was one of five finalists in the competition.

"I would like to ask that you take time to sign up and vote for their video," the friend-of-a-friend wrote.

At first my reader thought that this was a good way for the boy's class to benefit from new technology. Thinking it over, however, and realizing that he hadn't seen the other four videos, he wondered how he could cast a vote saying that theirs was the best.

Examining the e-mail more closely, my reader found an attachment: a note from the class teacher explaining how to view all five videos on a Web site and then vote for his class's video. So my reader could in fact view each video and then vote based on their merits.

"But clearly that is not the intent of the parent who sent me the e-mail or of the teacher," he writes. "What kind of lesson does this send to those 6-year-olds? If they win because the voting has been padded, and not on merit, then they will have won fraudulently. How should the other classes feel if they lose because `well-meaning' parents sought to manipulate the vote?"

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school and an election for house council was being held, a classmate of mine -- now a minister -- explained it to me this way: "You vote for your friends."

That point is more reasonable than it may seem at first glance. We know our friends, after all, and have a clearer window into their values and integrity than we do with strangers. It's therefore possible to support them with greater conviction than it is with someone we don't know. But of course our knowledge of that person might also provide incentive not to vote for them, if we think that they aren't up to the job or don't deserve it.

Supporting a child's class is a noble goal, but the right thing to do in any election is to understand your choices and vote only for the person or idea that truly most deserves your support. That's true whether you're voting for a bunch of 6-year-olds or for the prospective leader of your country.

If my reader deemed two of the class videos to be of equal merit, there would be nothing wrong with him using the personal connection, admittedly a tenuous one in this case, as a tiebreaker. But it would be irresponsible to vote for one video without having seen them all. And if one of the other four videos truly outshines the others, the only honest choices are to vote for that one or not to vote at all.

As for the "young entrepreneur of the year" contest, I did not vote for any candidate, since I didn't know them well enough to judge. The candidate my acquaintance was promoting nonetheless was one of the winners.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you make some interesting points, but I disagree with your conclusion regarding the video contest. While it seems the voters are being asked to choose the best video, it is most precisely a contest, not an election nor an arbitration of merit.

The reward for winning is a cash prize. In most situations, the sponsor collects personal information from the voters for marketing and/or demographic purposes in exchange for furnishing the prize. I doubt the vast majority of voters has an opinion on the cinematographic skills of first-graders.

But we all would like to see our friends or acquaintances do well because by enriching our social context we enrich ourselves. It's a strange sort of selfish altruism.

There is a cold-hearted, albeit practical, reason to vote for the people you have a connection to in this circumstance as well. The award is going to further the education of the children in question. A reliable predictor of their future success is their support network during their education, not their ability to create a video. A wide-ranging network of adults who care enough even to click on a few buttons online is a fair determinant that the prize money will be spent on the children with the greatest opportunity to use it well.

Furthermore, those who might be swayed by the perceived quality of one video or another must recognize that only a fraction of the work done to produce a video can be done by six-year-olds. Though they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the contest, the children are less producers than props used to secure funding for their schools.

In the other situation, which is clearly a case of personal achievement, it would be wrong to vote based on personal connection.