…And I disapprove of this message

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.

Comments (11)
  1. oresama says:

    Join the alien club.

    In Japan, I need an "Alien Registration Card".

    Maybe I should get an alien UFO to go along with that.

  2. James Curran says:

    I’m completely baffled by the signs as well (and this is coming from a US citizen/campaign volunteer who help people post them).

    The best reason I can think of is that seeing his name everywhere can convince voters that he’s popular and therefore "mainstream". (ie. a kooky fringe candidate wouldn’t have the support to post all those signs)

  3. Philip Munce says:

    I would just hate to think what would happen if Australia didn’t have compulsory voting.

  4. Garry Trinder says:

    OK, I talked to a friend who is actually on the staff of a US Congressman.  Her (personal, not offical) opinion on lawn sign: "If you don’t know the candidates, you might be willing to trust the opinion of a neighbor who has a sign out front.   Signs along the roads (not attached to someone’s house) are pretty much useless other than reminding people of the date of the elelction."

  5. Tom,

    Welcome to the party. <grin> You are spot on with regard to the reason for the signs: name recognition is a huge factor in voting (for good or for ill). Having just returned from Redmond, I know exactly what you are talking about. There does seem to be a plethora of signs on every traffic island, and I’m still not sure whether it’s Tom Rodney or Rodney Tom.

    On the other hand, the process is quite a bit better than in some other areas of the world (not a defense of some of the practices, merely an observation).

    I recently read an article that said that Australians are now fined if they don’t vote (I can’t remember if was nation-wide or only one of the states), but I did think it was intriguing.

  6. Hi Mitchell –

    Thanks for the comment. My intent here wasn’t to say that the US version of democracy is worse (or better) than anywhere else – I just felt like sharing what this all looks like to an outsider…

    You are correct that voting is compulsory in Australia – it’s been that way since 1924. Actually to be more accurate, it’s compulsory to turn up to the polling booth on election day. What you do after that is up to you 🙂

    I think Australia is one of about 3 countries in the world with compulsory voting, so I can imagine how it would seem strange. However personally I think it’s a great idea. Self-selecting surveys don’t usually come close to accurately representing what people think (just look at TV news polls for an example). Requiring everyone to turn up ensures the result is representative of what everyone thinks – not just those people who are motivated enough to turn up voluntarily. In Australia elections are also always held on a Saturday, which seems a lot more convenient to me than voting mid-week. Not that I’m necessarily in favor of all aspects of Aussie politics, but the election process at least seems to work well 🙂


  7. Peter Sienkowski says:

    Perhaps people should have more info on the signs. People could make their signs into Christmas lights outline policies. Or the candidates head, nodding.

    Now that’d be cool.

  8. Andy P says:

    "but the election process at least seems to work well :-)"

    Yep, we have John Howard! 😉

  9. Hey Tom – I totally share your bewilderment, But through some quirk of genetics and geography, I’m actually going to vote today. (I don’t have to, but us Aussies feel they’re suppposed to right?)

    Now I have to figure out which coloured sign and symbol I like best…


  10. Thought you might want to know, the reason for the whole "and I approve this message" thing was so candidates couldn’t get away with saying that an ad wasn’t their idea. It’s "supposed" to be an affirmation that the candidate stands behind what is being said in the ad, "on the record".

    Showing up is required in Australia? Damn, we need to get that here. Baybe the government would actually get stuff done. That’s the downside of a free society though… you’re free to not participate.

  11. Robert – there’s no such things as a totally free society – every country’s government places restrictions on what its people can do. For example, in the US you can’t drive your car through shopping malls, visit Cuba or show nipples on broadcast TV. So requiring people turn up to vote would hardly be an unprecedented restriction of freedoms.

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