Tomorrow (Tuesday, October 6) is a day of local elections in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. I’ve done a little work on one campaign, enough to make me sad for the state of electoral politics.
I spent one evening and one morning recently (in separate weeks) working for a particular local candidate. (I’ll say that he’s male, because it makes the pronouns easier.) On the first occasion, I was “phone banking”: doing voter identifications from a list of registered voters. We were to find out whether each voter supported The Candidate or not, and, if not, whether the person would like more information about The Candidate, or whether they supported another person.
Having done voter ID calls on an issue campaign before, the tactic seemed familiar to me: we wanted to figure out whom to call on election day with a reminder to get and vote, and whom to leave alone (with the hope that they’d forget).
On the second occasion of helping The Candidate, I did a “literature drop”: leaving leaflets about The Candidate on people’s doorknobs. Again, I worked from a list of registered voters.
There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about targeting voters. But what troubled me was that our lists were already targeted: at least one major party affiliation was entirely absent, and our job as phone-bankers or lit-droppers was to narrow it down further to those not hostile to The Candidate, and ideally only those likely to support him. These people we would hit with more literature and phone calls, so that as many of “our” people would get out and vote as possible. Thus would The Candidate win: by getting out his supporters in greater numbers.
What’s so wrong with that? you ask. How else are candidates supposed to win?
Well, it’s not the idea that a candidate should get his or her supporters to the polls in greater numbers that bothers me. It’s that, from a pretty early stage, we were targeting voters and focusing only on those most likely to support The Candidate. Where, I asked The Candidate on day two, was the place for people to discuss what the important issues were and whose solutions were best? There was nothing in what we were doing that was meant to convince people of the urgency of our issues or the suitability of The Candidate to address them better than any of the others. “Right,” The Candidate chimed in. “Where’s the public discourse?”
The problem, he said, was that there wasn’t much of that going on anyway, so we were stuck with “get out the vote” tactics. The candidates get to answer a questionnaire that’s published in the News-Miner, and there are a handful of radio appearances and candidate forums where they may get a two-minute opening statement and then forty-five seconds to answer any questions. There really is no chance for substantive debate or discussion.
So, here’s a question for everybody: in an age when political strategizing has been reduced to “getting out the vote” (of those who already support your candidate), how do we foster public discourse around elections? Given a number of candidates about whom we may know little to nothing, how do we learn meaningfully about their views and intentions? How do we discuss the issues in a way that leaves us open to learning and persuasion? And whose responsibility should it be to see that this civic discourse takes place?
Up for election are: Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor; FNSB Assembly seats A, F, and G; Fairbanks City Council seats A and B; North Pole Mayor; North Pole City Council (two vacancies); FNSB School Board seats A, B, and G; three Borough-wide bond and ballot measures; and two city-wide ballot measures. Read the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner‘s 2009 Municipal Election overview for stories on the candidates and their answers to the News-Miner‘s questionnaires, and on the ballot measures.