Candidates around the US leave voters “ignorant.”

July 22, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

The Founding Fathers of the United States feared the effects of a largely uninformed populous. In the 1700s, Democracy still struck many people as a dangerous proposition, reliant on the education and devotion of the masses. With an unaware voting public, the logic went, Republic could turn to tyranny. We cannot idly expect the government to afford us our basic rights; we instead must always fight to retain them. Thomas Jefferson said it succinctly: “If the nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” Fellow Virginian James Madison explained it this way:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both. A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

How ironic that Virginia voters have some of the worst access to candidates’ positions of any state in the nation.  Public ignorance doesn’t get the blame this time, though. The majority of Virginian candidates up for election this November have neglected to fill out the nation’s foremost position survey, Project Votesmart’s National Political Awareness Test (NPAT).

Project Votesmart launched nationally in 1992. The nonpartisan organization, created by the diverse likes of George McGovern, John McCain, Bill Frist, Michael Dukakis, and Jimmy Carter, aims to create the most comprehensive database of information on candidates bidding for office. Project Votesmart’s website features background information and incumbents’ voting records, vast collections of public statements, and the ratings of hundred of interest groups. But the organization’s crown gem, the NPAT survey on political positions, has seen a steady decline in responses over the last several elections.

Unfortunately, the problem just begins in Virginia. Fewer and fewer candidates have chosen to respond to surveys all over the nation. In Montana, only 16 legislative candidates returned NPAT surveys, out of an estimated 250. Gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky and Indiana have refused the survey several times. Californian politicians, like Virginians, have reached an all-time low in response.

Both bewildered and curious, I went to Project Votesmart’s database and looked up the candidates in my state, Ohio. Look at what I found. Dismal results across the board.

What makes candidates so fearful of this innocuous five-page document? The survey asks straightforward questions about what issues a candidate supports, and nothing more. A candidate can even receive credit for returning a survey only half-finished. So what harm does a candidate see in participating?

Someone with the Cincinnati Enquirer must have wondered the same thing. When a reporter asked Congressional challenger Roxanne Quall’s campaign spokeswoman why her candidate had refused the survey, she replied:

“It’s too accessible to everyone; we would rather have control over our message.”

Excuse me? A candidate’s positions, the opinions that will no doubt drive their policy decisions if elected, should not become “accessible to everyone”? Apparently not, if you heed the advice of party leaders and campaign consultants. Project Votesmart thinks that candidates often shun their NPAT survey because it opens a participant up to negative campaigning. Partisan mud-slinging has become more and more vitriolic; if a candidate responds to the NPAT with a position and then does something to the contrary, they’ll face the same “flip-flopper” fire that doomed John Kerry in 2004. And if a candidate supports something unpopular, their opponent may choose to exploit that knowledge. Nevermind that an election should actually revolve around what a candidate supports.

Parties have become more polarized and spiteful in recent years, but most people have remained in a relatively more moderate stance. Campaigns therefore thrive on image and marketing, attacking the opponent and rebuilding the candidate’s likeability. When we hear very little of a platform aside from trite generalizations such as “family values” and “working for America’s workers”, any mention of actual political stances become risky. Tragically, this movement into soundbite and away from voter education makes democracy all the more dangerous.


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Category: American Culture, Corruption, Culture, Current Events, Media, Politics, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Statistics, Web Site

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (2)

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  1. Ricky Koppel says:

    The even sadder fact, aside from the dishonesty of the politician, is the lack of effort on the behalf of most citizens. Its common knowledge that many voters do not vote, often because they are uninformed. It is also true that many do vote who are uninformed.

    While politicians should be expected to be honest, partisan politics and public relations nearly force them to reveal only positive information about themselves.

    Partisan policies reduce the wanted effect of democracy. When a politician is forced to follow a specific agenda (and the consequence is the loss of votes), combined with the effect of uninformed voters (many of which will vote only for their party, without knowledge of the candidates), they must often do what it takes to win, not follow their own ideals.

  2. Erika Price says:

    I can understand why politicians would want only to reveal the positive about themselves. I don't even blame them for it- would you review your faults in a job interview? But, going along with the job interview premise, a politician who will reveal none of his plans or positions compares to a job interviewee who will list none of his skills, past employment, or future plans. I wish that more people would look at electing public officials they way they would hiring an employee– with diligence and high demands. Instead, most of us vote based on marketing or party affiliation.

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