Voting in the Dark

Be honest. How many of you have entered the voting booth on election day with no reasonable knowledge of the entire list of candidates and issues on the ballot?

I’m not talking about presidential candidates here. If you don’t have some knowledge of the presidential candidates by November, you’re blind and deaf or Amish. No, I’m talking about the down-ticket races and referendums. Odds are things like gubernatorial and Senate races garner some of your attention, but beyond that the meaningless names of state congressional races, judgeships, etc., have likely tortured your sense of civic responsibility as you stood in the voting booth, completely clueless as to who these people are and what they represent.

So, a show of hands. Who’s had this experience before? Once? Twice? Numerous times?

If a sea of hands isn’t in the air at this point, far too many of you are lying. Then again, since only 36% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2014 midterm election, those folks with their hands down probably didn’t even enter a voting booth.

The prevailing theory regarding voter disengagement is that voter restrictions and partisan election tampering are turning voters off or actively barring them from the process. During the presidential primaries this year, there have been ample cases to suggest that politicians would prefer as few of us vote as possible.

The question is why are our supposedly non-partisan elections boards not providing us a single-source destination for more detailed information about the candidates and issues? Why aren’t they writing non-partisan checklists of what these people and issues represent and support? 

For down-ticket candidates and issues, you have to wonder if any of that even matters. Too often we end up in the polls with little more than partisan enthusiasm for one party or the other, and end up staring blankly at the long list of candidates who, if we’re telling the truth, we just choose because of party designation. For those without those designations, we employ the S.A.T. Panic Theory and just guess, filling out answers with no rhyme or reason, hoping the odds of us choosing correctly at least even out no worse than 50/50.

Needless to say, this is no way to choose our representatives. In fact, it’s reckless and irresponsible.

And no one is talking about it.

We’re told to focus our concern on access to the polls, which is reasonable and very important. We’re also told to focus on things like automatic registration, vote by mail, same-day registration, early voting, etc. These are all important issues. The problem is, even if all of these issues are worked out to our advantage, we’re still too uninformed to make smart choices about who will represent us in the highest positions of power in our country.

Trust me, those representatives don’t want to talk about making voters smarter. The language of politicians is too often rife with obfuscation and deflection and muddled logic. In the age of 24/7 corporate news channels, they count on their carefully staged soundbites and images crafted by friendly pundits and political cronies in order to get your vote. In other words, they want you to vote based on a “feeling” and an image. Forget facts and voting records.

Today’s politicians are like pop songs. Consider “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. According to SongFacts, the Grammy-winning song is “one of the most misinterpreted songs ever. It is about an obsessive stalker, but it sounds like a love song.” The song’s writer, Sting, knew it would be the band’s biggest hit. He told Rolling Stone, it’s “an archetypal song. If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you’re not original.” Originality wasn’t the point. Stirring basic emotions was, even if they don’t actually reflect the message of the song. Politicians construct their rhetoric by the same principles.

I challenge you to search the internet for lucid, succinct, non-partisan descriptions of the candidates for office this November, up and down the ticket, all the way to mayor, city council, and school boards. Tell me how long it takes you to find information on every candidate and issue. Then tell me whether or not you found it all in one place.

Now ask yourself, why the fuck is that so hard?

So if voting is the life’s blood of a democracy (and we often tout our democracy as the greatest in history), why do we accept a voting experience that is such shit? This is the Information Age, people.

Someone is going to say you can get sample ballots from your local elections board, but rest assured this is not enough, even if you can easily find them. A sample ballot is no more informative than the ballot you’ll actually use. Sure, it’s great if you go find it because you can then go do the research to see who all these people are. The question is why are our supposedly non-partisan elections boards not providing us a single-source destination for more detailed information about the candidates and issues? Why aren’t they writing non-partisan checklists of what these people and issues represent and support? I mean, how fucking hard would that be? And how incredibly useful would it be if before the election if I could simply go online or receive in the mail a summary of the candidates and issues and the relative stances of each on issues critical to my community, city, state and country.

It’s a radical idea, I know.

Cynics will say that voting is a responsibility and that it’s our fault if we don’t do our research. Know-it-alls will tell us we’re just lazy and that we deserve what we get if we don’t know who all the candidates are. Never mind the obstacles to getting an accurate read on the long list of candidates and issues; curmudgeons-for-the-way-things-are tell us we’re at fault. (And in the back of the curmudgeon conference, a voice rises to shout, “You’re in America, learn to speak English, dammit!”)

Bullshit.

I have considerable experience in the discipline of user experience testing. Let me tell you, if companies conducted business the way our local, state and federal governments conduct elections, they would all be out of business. This isn’t to say that elections should make a profit, mind you, but rather that if businesses ignored how easy or hard it is to engage with their stores and services, whether in physical buildings or their websites, they would undoubtably fail…and quickly.

Have you ever had difficulty finding a store clerk in a big box retail store? Have you ever had trouble completing a sale on a retail website? Have you ever been badgered by unwanted emails, only to find that they don’t have an easy to find “unsubscribe” button? Have you ever struggled to find a product you need either in a bricks-and-mortar store or online? Have you ever struggled with a restaurant menu because they didn’t clearly describe each dish? These are all critical issues of user experience.

Now tell me, when those things happen, does it encourage you to shop in that store or return to that restaurant again?

(Politicians) never ever want us to get down to the question of whether we actually know who or what we’re voting for once we get into the voting booth. They prefer us to vote in the dark.

Now imagine applying that same logic to the voting experience. Yeah, yeah, I know that voting is a responsibility and not a voluntary purchase, but the truth is, even non-shopping experiences are subject to the rules of user experience. For instance, you have to register your car and pay property taxes every year. If that process is difficult and painstaking, many people will procrastinate and either complete it late or not at all. That’s why government departments that collect money from us do more to employ good user experience principles. If they didn’t, they would lose money.

So if voting is the life’s blood of a democracy (and we often tout our democracy as the greatest in history), why do we accept a voting experience that is such shit? This is the Information Age, people. Perhaps we should use actual information in determining who we entrust with making the most important decisions in our communities and our country.

Sharing information efficiently and effectively, however, does not serve the purposes of those who have gained power through this faulty system. Which leaves us to speculate why the Democratic and Republican parties mistakenly believe the Constitution established them as the sole legitimate political parties for all eternity. It didn’t, by the way. George Washington, our first president, delivered this warning about political parties in his farewell address:

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

The fact that our political parties not only aren’t addressing the dearth of simple, clearly articulated position points for every candidate for office in a single, easy to access document suggests very much that they are unprincipled and eager to maintain their power through cunning misdirection. That they are furthermore pushing restrictions on voting (strict voter I.D. requirements, elimination of same-day registration and early voting periods, the permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons, misleading claims in the media regarding super delegates, vote tampering at polling places, and very possibly actual rigging of the vote through electronic voting machines, etc.) all suggests that they never ever want us to get down to the question of whether we actually know who or what we’re voting for once we get into the voting booth. They prefer us to vote in the dark.

So, no matter what voting improvements are made, if any, in the coming year or four, rest assured it likely won’t be enough. Unless we radically reassess the actual voting process, all of those down-ticket candidates and issues are being settled – in far too many instances – by the equivalent of taking a multiple choice quiz without ever receiving adequate study materials. When it comes to real democratic elections, folks, we are doomed to fail that test.

Leave a Reply