March 22, 2014 by Thomas Hauber
Certain political realities came to light the other night as I’m about to down my third St Patty’s day Jamieson. My waitress, a Mira Sorvino look-alike, notices my ‘PAUL RYAN IS A TRAITOR’ T-shirt and asks, “Who’s Paul Ryan?”
She’s barely of voting age so she gets a pass. The danger of following politics (or trying to write about it) is getting “sucked into this rotten business” and so wrapped around your own axle that even your good friends will stop talking to you. Truth is, come election time, there are way too many campaign races for most voters to keep track of and the more local the politics are the crazier its gets.
Voters know who their current President is. A handful of voters will know the name of their state’s Governor and maybe one US Senator, but unless a US Congressman is in the news (or ran for VP) they won’t remember his name either. When you get down to the level of an individual State’s Senate and Assembly, nobody has a clue.
It’s easy to forget the name of your State Senator or Assemblyman if you don’t know you even have one. Everybody’s hip to a Presidential race, but in sleep-inducing off-year elections the only people really interested in these local races are the candidates themselves, s few close friends and few paid staffers, a handful of political junkies and whoever’s paying for the campaign.
State legislators don’t make a lot of money, $7,200 in Texas, $22,000 in Oregon and $95,000 in California. Many of them are citizen-politicians, with other jobs. An Assemblyman in Callifornia might represent a half a million people, in Texas less than 20,000
So who are those unfamiliar names on the ballot?
Come election time, incumbents have a edge of name recognition, challengers need to get it out there. There is usually a campaign website that gives you some idea of what they stand for. There’s pictures of the candidate with their family and shots talking with a demographically staged group of voters. Only a few past Presidents, like Ronald Reagan, make the front page along with pictures of the Constitution with eagles and flags and troops getting an award. Three of the four candidates for the US senate in Oregon have pictures of Mt Hood on their websites.
You’ll find the same things on fancy four-color direct mailings that show up right before the election. Somewhere on these flyers you’ll find the name of a high-sounding organization or committee that’s paying the bills. The real sponsors of the campaign aren’t talking, at least directly. The speak through third-party organizations that disguise their true identities and their agendas. All the candidates pledge to “fight” for you. The trick is figuring out who they’ll fight for and against.
Most states have a voter’s pamphlet sent to residences where candidates can post a bio, qualifications, a voting record and/or their reasons for running. In Oregon where all voting is by mail, a conscientious voter can sit down with their ballot, the voter’s pamphlet and a cup of coffee and learn at least some facts about who they’re voting for — where the candidate’s from, where they went to school or whether he/she is a vet or a dentist or a local businessman.
Most of the time it doesn’t matter a whole lot. Ballot fatigue sets in and voters often vote the straight party line. It’s the reason that almost any candidate the two major political parties nominate for office will automatically get about 40% of the vote. A 60 to 40% win is considered a thrashing, a majority or races are decided with margins closer than 55% – 45. About 10% of the voters are the deciders. It used to be voters thought no candidate for office was more than 10% different from any other. That’s what turned a lot of people off politics in the past. Times have changed. With the country split right down the middle, almost any charlatan, kook or ideologue can run for office if the voters aren’t paying attention.
A lot can happen in a State Capitol and that’s where the real craziness starts. State legislatures are increasingly rabid. Political gerrymandering isolates minority voters to a small number of districts and promotes strict majority and partisan control of State Houses. There’s no limit to what passions, sensibilities and provincial concerns can generate when you’re making 20 bucks a day, far from home and untrusting of the Federal government. Every year State legislators propose an awesome array of ill-conceived, half-baked and blatantly illegal schemes to limit, advance or restrict civil rights, gender rights, voting rights, gun rights, reproductive rights, almost any and every Article of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and federal law.
Voters are often unaware and surprised at what passes as law in Salem or Austin or Columbia South Carolina. They shouldn’t be.