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Our Views: Winning back the cynics

To entice more voters to take part, national, state candidates need to run better campaigns

POSTED: April 27, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Each election year, we use this space to encourage everyone to register, vote and take part in our marvelous American democratic process.

We deserve the leaders we select, and the best way to choose those who will represent our interests best are to participate fully. We all should learn about the issues, weigh the candidates carefully and vote for the ones who will fulfill their promises to serve nobly.

But now that we’ve fulfilled that election year requirement, we’d like to address the remainder of this editorial to the candidates and those who work for their campaigns.

It’s no secret that the political climate in our nation has turned off many voters and potential voters, including many of the younger generation who have so much to gain or lose. After all, they will be the ones paying taxes, earning benefits and feeling the impact of government decisions long after their parents and grandparents. Yet year after year, older Americans take part in greater numbers while others tune out.

Many lament that politics is dominated by a wealthy elite who ignore the needs of common folk. But much of that likely stems from the fact too many of the common folk have abandoned their civic duties and consider politics either a waste of time or “not their thing,” a hobby like bowling or knitting.

Whatever the cause for such apathy, it’s clear such cynicism has taken root and grown, leading many to believe their vote does not matter.

How do we change this? What public effort can encourage more people to take part in our process and make their views known at the ballot box?

There’s no easy answer, but it’s safe to say any change should start with the candidates themselves and the type of campaigns they run.

In the eyes of many, our national and state-level political campaigns follow an all-too-familiar narrative that varies little from election to election, race to race. It usually goes like this: Some successful, civic-minded soul decides to seek elected office and declares he or she alone can save us from the maladies that threaten our way of life. Sometimes they already hold an office and want a better one. Others were voted out of office awhile back and are hankering to get back in. This year’s Georgia ballots offer examples of both.

As the race begins, candidates bounce from one fundraising event to another with their hands out raising money, most of it from people who have something to gain by representing businesses or other special interests.

During the campaigns, candidates spend most of that money trying to beef up their images while tearing down their foes. Never mind that those of the same party might share the same policy ideals; in their minds, they are the only ones who can fill that office capably.

Their TV ads look much the same and preach a similar message: The other so-and-so doesn’t represent you, is not conservative or progressive enough to fill these shoes, yadda, yadda. They end with a Christmas card tableau of the preferred candidate, his or her smiling spouse and their bright-eyed children, often with a dog in tow.

Debates are an exercise in repetition, with candidates spouting well-rehearsed lines no matter what question they’re asked. And it ends with each declaring absolute victory. One Republican candidate in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race has an email sent moments after each debate declaring “(first name) has won again!” as if the score should appear on ESPN.

On Election Day, a handful of voters show up to vote and one candidate trumps the field. The winners celebrate victory in a room full of balloons and bunting, acting as if they have won an Academy Award rather than taking on the difficult task of governance.

Thus the campaigns are, from start to finish, all about them, the candidates themselves. The rituals, characters and scripts play out the same, leading many to tire of the process and assume, perhaps correctly, their participation is a waste of time.

To get them involved again, and to make our election process work better, we need to break this repetitive cycle of frivolous nonsense.

It begins with candidates seeking to serve the public, not themselves or specific interests. Their campaigns should focus on fresh ideas to solve problems the nation, state or community face and not the same old trite sound bites. And while their personal qualifications and abilities should be factored in, the trivial matter of who we’d rather share a beer or cup of tea with should be a low priority.

Debates should be real discussions that help candidates sort out where they agree and disagree and show us their ability to react in real time, not just rehash stump speeches. Moderators should back off and let them engage each other to help voters see how they can think on their feet and respond to challenges once in office.

Candidates should shelve the speeches and interact more directly with voters to hear their concerns. Many can take a cue from candidates for local office, who tend to do a better job of keeping that dialogue going.

At times, they should go beyond telling people what they want to hear and offer an honest assessment of what needs to be done. Not every solution is painless, and that needs to be spelled out clearly. For every vote they may lose, they could gain more from their candor.

Above all, they should remain humble and keep in mind why they are running. It’s time we got past the cult of personality that turns elected officials into celebrities and rock stars. They are hired by and work for the public, not the other way around.

Would such changes spark more people to join the process? Perhaps. But is it ever likely to happen? No, not if we don’t insist on it.

And here we cite the old chicken-and-egg analogy: Campaigns won’t draw more voter participation if they don’t change, but candidates won’t change until voters make them do so.

We hold out hope, as always, that this election year will be different. However many voters do end up taking part, we trust them to make their best efforts to get us to the better candidates and campaigns we would all like to see.


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