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An Informed Electorate

Two hallmarks of a successful democracy are an informed electorate and an effective governmental structure, so we must take steps to ensure that we are always moving towards those goals. Our advanced communications technology of today makes it possible to reach the public with information, but the complexities of modern life and its tendency to undergo rapid change results in a cacophony of policy recommendations, claims, and counterclaims bombarding the public incessantly by special interests and candidates for public office striving to gain attention. This does not produce an informed electorate; it produces a confused electorate that struggles to make sense of this flood of ideas and proposals. We must find ways to help candidates for office organize and present their ideas in a structured way that will enable the public to understand and properly consider them. The new non-partisan Independent Branch could take steps to address this problem with the formation of an Election Proposal Service (EPS) that offers help to anyone wishing to present a new policy idea to the public.

Candidates for public office, announced or quietly aspiring, tend to focus on public perceptions in their campaigns. Bonafide policy proposals get very little attention, and as a result, the public is bombarded with attention-getting sound bites rather than substantive discussion of public issues. Why is that? They do it because it works – it quickly gets attention and can elevate public awareness of the candidate’s name, associated with a simple idea that sounds appealing. It creates a favorable (if shallow) impression of the candidate that their campaign will seek to build on with repetition and other sound bites sprinkled in The realistic implications of the new idea are disregarded while the campaign works to expand on the simple theme.

This tactic has assumed primacy in our elections, even though it does not convey any

reliable information to the electorate.

What it does accomplish is the manipulation of the public, which is contrary to good government practices. It leaves public opinion floundering for comprehension of facts, and chasing after ephemeral but enticing ideas. This is not the road to good government and an effective, functioning democracy: the candidate most skilled in delivering perceptions rather than facts has a decided advantage in the election campaign, often resulting in the election of individuals ill-suited for their potential role in governance.

Is there any way to change this scenario and invoke practices that will elevate the public’s understanding of policy issues and so improve the results coming from Washington? Perhaps there is, but it will require thinking that is “outside the box.” Here is one suggestion to consider.

The new States’ Compact, a non-partisan agency of the states, could set up an organizational unit that offers candidates a service to review and evaluate new policy proposals, examining their economic impact and likelihood of achieving their goals. It could classify a proposal as a:

  • Blue Sky Idea (an appealing idea, but one that lacks sufficient definition to allow any serious evaluation of it), or

  • Needs Work Idea (an interesting idea that has been partially defined, but needs further definition before a serious evaluation can be offered on it), or

  • New Policy Proposal (a new policy proposal that is reasonably well defined, with an evaluation that can be found on the PPS website).

The evaluation would be strictly non-partisan and would not make any recommendations regarding the proposal; it would simply help the public better understand the rhetoric of claims and counterclaims of an election campaign, and differentiate between a random idea and a well-developed proposal for a solution to a perceived problem.

Announced candidates would be required to identify any mention of a new idea (proposal) with a statement like this:

“The Election Proposal Service has studied the following idea and determined it is (a Blue Sky idea, or a new idea that Needs Work, or a proposal that has been evaluated and may be found on the EPS website).”

This suggestion is clearly “outside the box.” The point is, that we must use our imaginations and common sense to improve the way our government works. And we must not hesitate to challenge practices, no matter how long enshrined in our history, that do not contribute to the development of an informed electorate or an effective government. They are the hallmarks of a successful democracy, and so are the filters we must constantly use in testing our existing practices.

Frank Keeney

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