Information, Laziness, and Voting

News stories this morning pointed out that Romney outspent Huckabee 6 to 1 in Iowa, yet in the end it wasn’t enough for a win. It’s interesting that the expectation is that spending is equal to votes. It’s unfortunate that it’s often quite true.

Voters frequently complain about the behavior of candidates–too many sound bites, too many negative ads, too much fluff, too few hard proposals. It’s good for voters to be concerned. But the bottom line is that the candidates are going to do what works, that is what gets them elected. If negative ads didn’t work, candidates wouldn’t be using them so much. Now there certainly are times when there is a backlash because of excessively negative ads, or too many of them. But to a large extent, the mud sticks.

There is also a perfectly good place for the negative in a campaign. If a candidate has lied or broken promises before, it should be known. A negative ad can point this out. But there is also a great deal of room for spin, and 30-60 second ads don’t leave much room for nuances. Take the issue of Governor Huckabee and the number of prisoners whose sentences he commuted while governor. How a governor uses the power to pardon people or commute sentences is surely a valid subject for discussion when that candidate seeks re-election or runs for another office. I see no problem with an opponent pointing out such behavior in an ad.

But then there is the issue of context. Numbers don’t always mean what they appear to mean on the surface. Were there more opportunities for pardons or commutations? What reasoning was used? Can you point to specific cases of particular bad judgment? All of those are valid questions. Unfortunately, cynical voters tend to just focus on whether the ad was negative or positive.

Since I am not a Republican (I’m registered independent), I only took a brief look at this issue, but based on that I suspect this issue would end up fairly neutral for me. In other words, I’d disagree with some of what he did, but I wouldn’t regard it as abuse. Were I a Republican voter in an upcoming primary, however, I’d be digging much deeper in order to either confirm that early impression or not. Should he be the Republican nominee, you can be sure I will know.

I am angered by vague positive ads. Everybody’s in favor of “change.” Yet I’m reminded of this scene in C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasped the Governor. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”
“I have seen them both in an egg,” said Caspian. We call it Going bad in Narnia. This trade must stop.”

Match the “time for a change” ads with the “make our country great again” ads, which generally don’t give one any hint of just what greatness consists of and how it is that we will attain that greatness. But you play these ads enough times with patriotic music and a flag waving in the background, and people who have no idea what the candidate stands for remember his name in favorable terms. Our problem is that we are not reading, listening, and viewing critically.

The fact is, however, that we as voters really have no excuse not to get the information we need. I have been searching for information on the candidates’ positions on health care, in preparation for my next post in my series “What I want for election day . . .” Now for some candidates there is very little information there, but that in itself is significant information. The Association of Health Care Journalists reported that of the 14 candidates who were in the race when I first read the page, nine had released a health care proposal and only three had responded to a series of questions from the association. (Two candidates have dropped out of the race since I extracted that information.)

Obviously candidates have no obligation to respond to a questionnaire from any particular organization, but it does give an indication of the interest level. The site also provides one with an easy way to access information from the candidates themselves through their web sites. Now I haven’t finished my own research, and I’m not vouching for the accuracy of their list–I’m just using it for illustration.

My question is how many voters will actually read these health care proposals and ask how they would work? I congratulate candidates on putting out proposals that one can evaluate. But if the voters just respond to ads that announce things like “I’m in favor of health care for all” or “I believe we must preserve complete choice in American health care,” they won’t really know what is likely to happen should their candidate have his or her way. Not every proposal will accomplish what it claims it will.

There is simply no reason why money should be so influential. We have the means to spread information on every candidate for very little money, and if the voters took the time to seek out the information, instead of waiting for 30 second spots which by nature cannot truly inform, then the money would have much less influence.

I don’t think that candidate spending, (big money, or whatever you wish to call it), lobbyists, or the mainstream media can be blamed for a misinformed electorate. I think the only reason for the electorate as a whole to be misinformed is that not enough voters wish to be adequately and accurately informed. The information is available if you seek it out. If you’re going to vote, I can think of no adequate excuse for you to enter that voter booth uninformed.

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