Here in the United States, it’s election time again. Being an “alien” (as the US government insists on calling me), I can only watch from the sidelines (what was that thing about taxation without representation?) – but to my antipodean eyes, the American version of democracy is perplexing to say the least. For a start, hardly anyone turns up to vote, possibly due in part to the fact that it always happens in the middle of a work week when everyone is busy. And the process of translating from who the people vote for, to who actually gets elected, seems outrageously complicated and illogical, especially for the presidential race.
But the most visible part of the election process, at least for a non-voter, is the campaigning – and in particular, the signs that every candidate insists on planting on every street corner and traffic island. For the benefit of those who have never been in the US during election season, these signs are about the size of A3 or tabloid paper, with around 90% of the sign taken up by the candidate’s name and a stereotypical patriotic symbol such as a flag or eagle. At the bottom of the sign, in fine print, you will see the position that the candidate is running for, and an abbreviation of their party (GOP or DEM). That’s it. Nothing about what they stand for. Nothing about their record. Nothing about why you should vote for them over their opponents.
Why on earth would people spend so much money and effort on creating and distributing signs which contain no more information than is displayed on the ballot paper? As I’m sure you’ve already concluded, I’m no expert on this matter – but presumably they do this because they have evidence that it works. So the depressing conclusion is that a non-trivial proportion of society will turn up at the polling booth, look over the ballot form and think “Joe Bloggs… his name seems familiar – so I guess I’ll vote for him”. This may answer the question on why the candidates and parties go to the trouble to post the signs – but why the cities allow them to scatter these eyesores all over public land when they clearly contribute nothing to the democratic process is beyond me.
Of course these signs are not the only source of political information. The other form of political bombardment that I notice most is the 30 second spots on commercial television – and these are even worse. Practically every ad, from both major parties, is negative, superficial, and all too frequently (as we ultimately discover), completely inaccurate. But by the time someone cries foul, the damage is already done – and as far as I can tell there isn’t any real effort to punish the purveyors of misleading information or stop it from happening in the future. And don’t get me started on the pointlessness of the “…and I approve this message” bit in every ad.
To be fair, I know a lot of people are able to get very good information from sources such as NPR, some decent newspapers, and of course the web, and make informed decisions on who to vote for. But given the tendency of the parties to cater for the lowest common denominator, serving a cocktail of non-information and disinformation, maybe we should be thankful that so many people choose not to vote at all.