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NOTIONS: Beyond election reform, electorate re-engagement

May 21, 2007

I once spent a day serving as an Allen County election official. I was 20-something. I worked for Fort Wayne's mayor. And on Election Day, the mayor expected us to work the polls.

For the sake of nostalgia and monotonyinterrupting conversations, I got myself assigned to the precinct at my high school.

On the appointed Tuesday, I showed up at 5:15 a.m., did my voter-watching/guardagainst-shenanigans-by-the-other-party thing for 12 hours and helped with votecounting for two hours after that.

Then I headed for party headquarters to watch the returns.

Can you say "boring?" (I knew you could.)

So I wasn't surprised when lots of precinct workers failed to show up in Indianapolis for the recent municipal primary. Heck, with infinitesimal news coverage, little third-party information about the candidates (I know; I looked), and minimal communication from the candidates themselves (I received one piece of direct mail and no emails the entire primary campaign), it was easy to forget there was an election taking place.

Because some precincts opened late, and others weren't adequately staffed and a handful couldn't open at all, not all the folks who wanted to vote got to vote.

Not good.

And because there were problems with Republican-managed elections in the past (about which the Democrats screamed "Fraud!," "Injustice!" and "Incompetence!"), and because this election was managed by a Democrat, we've had to hear the Republicans scream "Fraud!," "Incompetence!," and "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!"

But beyond the blame game and the debate as to which overdue repair should be implemented first, there's the bigger issue of low turnout and its down-the-road impact on vital issues affecting "we the people" and our pocketbooks.

With single-party dominance a sad and choice-limiting reality in many central Indiana communities, primaries are, for all practical purposes, the deciding contest in many places.

But you'd never know it.

Journalists too seldom take the time or allocate much of their ever-shrinking space to adequately introduce primary candidates. Independent voter guides are virtually nonexistent. Editorial boards rarely interview primary candidates and make endorsements.

The political parties seem more interested in slating than voter choice, and party Web sites are often out of date, incomplete or limited to only the cherry-picked candidates and carefully buffed biographies.

The candidates, especially those seeking less-prominent offices, often have so little cash that they can't (or don't know how to) adequately market themselves.

And few organizations host meet-thecandidate events or debates prior to primaries.

And so our ballots are filled with the names of often-unknown candidates for city-county council or state representative, state senator or county assessor, school board member, township trustee, etc. And it's darned difficult to know whom we're choosing between, and what each candidate advocates and how they might vote on the issues that affect our lives.

Then, of course, when they get into office and do something distasteful, folks holler "Throw the bums out." But they rarely do, because the few who vote too-seldom know who "the bums" are.

We live in a technology-savvy world that enables people to engage in conversations, debate issues and collectively weigh in on decisions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But our electoral system-especially at the local and state level-too often relies on antiquated methods that send messages at people, discourage discussion and force voters to show up in person on a particular day during inconvenient hours to engage in a distrusted process.

No wonder only a few hundred people decided many races affecting the next four years of local public policy during the same week 45 million weighed in on the final four of "American Idol."

If we're to fix what ails our election system, we need much more than badmouthing the county clerk and adequately staffing outmoded polling places during inadequate voting hours.

To be sure, the mechanics of voting need systemic overhaul, making it easy and convenient for people to vote in their preferred way on their preferred timetable: online, by mail, by phone or in person. I have those choices with my retirement fund, my banking, my prescriptions, even my license-plate renewal. Surely, we can find a secure way to make voting equally convenient.

But concurrent with advances in voting mechanics, we need better ways of informing and (more important) engaging the electorate-at every level of office, even in advance of primaries. The possibilities are endless: online candidate forums and debates, candidate chat sessions with voters, vodcasts, podcasts, even candidateonly blogs where we can watch as opponents continuously debate with one another various issues related to the office they're seeking.

Gone are the days when 20-something political hacks must waste their time at highschool polling places. Instead, let's put the 20-something tech whizzes to work reinventing the electoral process and re-engaging the citizens in democracy.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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