Thursday, October 02, 2014

Inattention Where It Most Matters

I read the news and I vote.  But frankly like a lot of people, I always end up on voting day finding myself standing there unprepared to make a choice for some offices.

A friend of mine recently pointed me to a solution.  In North Carolina, a non-partisan group, the North Carolina Center for Voter Education has teamed with UNC-TV to provide a website called the 2014 N.C. Voter Guide.

You plug in your address and the website takes you through your ballot, office by office, candidate by candidate with a summary of their background and positions.

At each step you can choose if you like to mark a preference and then at the end you can print out a completed ballot to take with you inside the voting booth.Voter Guide

It is also a place you can go to check your registration, find a polling place and see any new changes to voting requirements.

It is a lot easier to use than other past guides provided by news outlets which turned into something more like homework.

But I also wish there was a way when we vote, to reconsider candidates for whom we voted in the last election who have turned out to be a disappointment, even if just to send them a signal.

I’ve worked very closely, especially with state and local elected officials in my former life.

Sure, a few have been slimy, corrupt and passive aggressively smug in the realization that they won’t be detected behind the image they craft for public and media consumption.

But as a whole, locally elected officials are incredibly hard-working and honorable.

However, there have always been some, who once in office, seem to morph into someone else.  They go undetected even in personal interviews only to become the antitheses, once in office, of what you were led to believe when voting for them.

Maybe it is a case of what political science researchers call the “ego rent” some individuals begin to collect once elected to office.

Bored with executing the mundane policy preferences of constituents, pursuit of “ego rent” is why some start playing political games, making decisions based on incomplete or imbalanced feedback and ultimately fronting for special interests rather than voters.

But unfortunately, elections don’t come with a rescission period like there is for other decisions.

Local and state services represent about 40% of overall government spending and yet state decisions are often driven by officials for which only a few North Carolinians are given a choices.

For example, the horrific changes made a few years ago to clear cut public forestland along roadsides in favor of billboard blight was driven by just 19,381 voters, representing only one of the state’s 100 counties.

That is one of the inherent flaws in representative vs. popular democracy, the former now nearly obsolete.

But there is also growing evidence that as voters, we are far less likely to hold state and local officials accountable, even though they have far more influence over quality of life and the quality of the places we love.

There is also far too little news coverage in local elections.  Most is the superficial “he said, she said” type.  Taking editorial stances does not suffice for in-depth coverage and fact-checking.

For decades too, researchers have measured the bias toward national election coverage noting that in part, it is because it is easier and cheaper to cover.

Adverting simultaneous side-by-side fact-checking is no substitute, especially at the local level, where even cable channels do not reflect voting jurisdictions.

According to analysis by Borrell Associates, politicians and political organizations now spend $37 per eligible voter to sway opinion with media advertising, soon to be $51 in 2016, up 21% from the record setting 2012 Presidential election.

Are we really feeling more informed?  Or are the lies just getting more entertaining?  It is ironic that in the guise of so-called free speech this form is largely exempt from “truth in advertising” requirements.

At the local level, we also don’t have non-partisan, though often ideological, think-tanks making sense of budgets and rarely, okay never, are news outlets inclined or resourced sufficiently to go back through local decisions to analyze and report if the results were ever as claimed.

Voters also have no guarantee that the candidates are invested in the places they seek to represent, since many so-called local offices such as some levels of judges and prosecutors aren’t even required to be residents of the places they serve.

Partisan gerrymandering of districts over the last two decades have also estranged voters from those who are their only hope of representation in the legislature.

It is no wonder so many elections have such little turnout.  I feel patriotic when I vote but many now just don’t see the point.

Websites such as the one I noted at the beginning help.  But the systems needs an overhaul and not just the less than veiled partisan elimination of early voting days and I.D. complications.

Government and public policy has never been more complicated nor the news media less empowered to unwrap it than it is today.

It isn’t much enough to know that the closer government is to the people, the more trust we have in it today.  Even at the local and state level, it is about where it was during the Watergate Era and that isn’t saying much.

A friend of mind once rationalized the flat, dispassionate lack of defense of public policy by rationalizing that voters have a lot of ways to find that out.

Oh really?  Maybe that’s where reform needs to begin.

By making budgets and regulations easier to decipher, by requiring audits and reports on every outcome promised, by making democracy responsive.

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