Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vote Smart

I’ve been part of several conversations this week about how hard it is to know what political candidates really think or what they would do once in office. TV and radio tell us what’s wrong with the opponent in seriously scary voice-overs, while real-time analytics of online ads and memes allow campaigns to give us the words we want to hear with little reference to the genuine issues at hand.  Debates often settle into repetition of familiar sound-bites, and candidate websites repackage the party line.

Conscientious citizens can easily feel discouraged.

That discouragement can feed apathy.

And apathy undermines what remains of the democratic process.

A 2011 TED talk by Canadian David Meslin that has been viewed over a million times puts an interesting spin on the question of apathy. Meslin describes the way information can be shared to engage and invite participation, and the way political information is more often used in a way that discourages engagement. His conclusion: 
I actually think people are amazing and smart and that they do care. But that, as I said, we live in this environment where all these obstacles are being put in our way. . . .
 My main message is, if we can redefine apathy, not as some kind of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement, and if we can clearly define, we can clearly identify, what those obstacles are, and then if we can work together collectively to dismantle those obstacles, then anything is possible.
Last month the International Foundation for Electoral Systems called attention to the consistently low voter turnout of the United States, “15 percent lower than the global average of 63 percent, and well below countries like Italy (89%), Iceland (88%), Belgium (85%), Australia (84%), Netherlands  (82%) and Turkey (75%).”

Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, has predicted that average will continue to sink even lower: 
If the first 25 statewide primaries (for U.S. Senate and/or state governor) are any guide, the nation is likely to witness the lowest midterm primary turnout in history. It is also likely to witness the greatest number of states setting records for low voter turnout.
According to Gans: 
 The core problem of participation does not reside in the realm of procedure, but rather in motivation. Contributing factors to the decline in motivation are not hard to find: campaigns that are run on scurrilous attack ads that give the citizen a perceived choice between bad and awful; one major party situated far to the right of the American center and the other without a clear and durable message; a decline in faith that government will address major societal need exacerbated by those whose politics seek to accomplish just that; a majority of the young growing up in households in which their parents don’t vote and a larger majority who hear no discussions of politics or public affairs; inadequate civic education in the schools; the fragmenting effects of modern communications technology that has made grazing the Internet a substitute for reading the news; preoccupation with one’s Iphone and its narrow personal community at the expense of interpersonal discussion and participation in a broader community; increased inequality that has the collateral effect of reducing hope for those at the bottom; the rise of libertarian and consumerist values at the expense of values that would promote community and collective engagement; the reduced coverage of politics in the visual media, to name but a few. 

I suppose the issue of information is much easier for someone willing to simply vote a party slate.

Or for someone willing to focus on one issue and ignore others equally pressing.

But the burden of finding usable information falls heavily on individuals willing to do as theyre told by a political party, or a particular TV or radio channel.  As both parties, and their approved media venues, careen toward the far corners of the political continuum, it becomes more and more important to weigh candidates’ narratives, read their positions, evaluate their previous votes, and look for men and women who seem to do more than simply repeat the lines they’ve been given.

There are scorecards that attempt to simplify the challenge, but in many cases they press further to those far corners of political correctness: 

Heritage Actions Scorecard  grades candidates on how conservative they are, as defined by the Heritage Foundation.

Freedomworks grades candidates on how well they live out the  motto “Government fails: freedom works. Less government, lower taxes, more economic freedom.” (I do find myself wondering: why would anyone wish to be governed by someone who believes government fails?)

Put a candidate's name into Project Vote Smart and hit Ratings and you'll see that candidate's scores from hundreds of organizations. Interesting, but a little daunting, since to make any sense of it you'd need to research the criterion for the group offering the score. 

Here are a few I check:

Bread for the World looks at only a handful of votes on legislation “to end hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world.”

In Pennsylvania, three conservation groups provide an environmental scorecard:

Friends Committee for National Legislation looks at issues relating to poverty, justice, and peace. 

And yes, there are some I check to make sure a candidate is as close to zero as possible, and others I prefer to see a number in middle; I'm not interested in someone who votes every time the way a special interest group instructs. 

Those scorecards, and many more, can offer a particular angle on incumbents, but often offer nothing at all in assessing new candidates.
They also do little to help voters sift through competing issues, or grapple with complexity.

Fortunately, there are other tools:

First, to find out who is on the ballot: in Pennsylvania, Smart Voter, and in most other states, Vote 411. ((Pennsylvania will be shifting to Vote411 before the next election).  These sites also provide links to candidates' own websites, and offer information from candidates who have responded.

I’ll be honest: candidates who don’t think they need to respond to requests for information go immediately to the bottom of my candidate list.  Unless they shine in other ways, I’m unlikely to vote for someone not responsive to voter questions.

Balletopedia  and Project Vote Smart offer similar information about candidates, along with some interesting other options. 

For federal incumbents , GovTrack gives a record of votes, tells what bills were introduced and passed, offers a ranking on ideology and leadership, and provides a percentage of missed roll call votes and how that compares to other legislators.

Published information candidates have released on a wide range of issues is available in an easy to use format on On the Issues.

Follow the Money and Open Secrets both offers information about candidate funding, tracks individual and corporate donors, and shows whether the money is from in or out of the voting district. And while I'm interested to see who receives union dollars, I'm even more interested to see whose campaign has been fueled by companies like Monsanto or Chesapeake Energy. 

There’s one more resource I’ve found that I highly recommend: “U. S.Elections 2014: Where do the candidates stand on issues of mercy and justice inour world?” prepared by the Sisters of Mercy. It’s not a scorecard, not a way to assess specific candidates, but a thoughtful presentation of helpful questions to consider, set in the context of challenging facts and sobering scripture. 

This is the eighth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014 
Let the People Draw the Lines, September 28, 2014 
A Prayer for the Broken, October 5, 2014 
 Dreaming of Home, October 12, 2014

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.