Yard signs are popping up, the first wave of absentee ballots are in the mail, and candidates are wrapping up plans for mailings and ads during the final 43 days before Nov. 4.
Yet, a recent poll in district 10 found that 70% of voters are undecided. Either people are taking their time about becoming informed, or they find “undecided” a polite way of saying mind your own business.
Admittedly, many Idahoans don’t share their political views easily, but people often aren’t informed about state and local politics. There’s a lot of media—television, radio, and print—covering the battles going on with Congress and the President. State and county issues get less coverage, and challengers at any level are lucky to get a mention.
So how are people to decide among candidates for the contested positions on their November ballots?
Debates allow us to see candidates in action. The audience not only hears stands on the hot issues, but may judge traits such as pride/arrogance, courtesy/rudeness, and understanding/rote recitation.
Idaho Public Television (KAID, channel 4) has posted a schedule for debates the evenings of October 4, 9, 21 and 30th. KTVB (channel 7) is also hosting debates, but I have times only for a gubernatorial debate Oct. 14.
But televised debates are available only for state and Congressional candidates. Media coverage of legislative candidates is limited by their numbers. Canyon County has five districts, each with two representatives and a senator, and Ada, eight. Although some positions are uncontested, others have up to four candidates.
In 2002 I introduced Linda Pall, a Moscow attorney running for the U.S. House, to variety of Boise media personnel. One after another, these pundits said they could only mention Pall if the incumbent also agreed to make a statement. Pall pointed out that they covered his statements on Congressional issues without asking her for a comment. Yes, they agreed; he had a right to communicate with his constituents. But, no, they couldn’t quote her even on areas of her legal expertise—family law, human rights, downtown revitalization, etc.—unless he was willing to comment.
There is no law requiring such balance, but media representatives are reluctant to open the floodgates.
The Idaho Press-Tribune has hosted helpful forums in the past, but participation by over a dozen candidates required that answers generally be limited to 30 to 90 seconds. Many candidates just parroted others of their party. Candidates and organizations also hold events where candidates may introduce themselves and answer questions, but these are seldom well-publicized nor well-attended.
Candidate websites may be the best source of information on a candidate’s background and stands. In addition, people may submit questions.
Major newspapers also print candidates’ answers to a variety of questions. This usually occurs late in the cycle, when voter interest is highest. If the coverage were earlier, however, people would might have time to digest and question the differences.
Campaigns put all the money they can into literature, mailings, and advertisements. They know they are competing for voters’ attention. They send postcards, not letters, because they want to catch the voters’ eye in the few seconds between the mail box and the trash. There’s only space for key words—“businessman,” “supports education,” “long-time Idaho resident,” etc. What candidates choose to say here indicates their priorities—or what they think voters want their priorities to be. Still, the total is not enough to support an important decision.
We all need to “vote for the candidate, not the party,” but it requires effort to do it right.