Commentary: Midterm elections and the terrible toos

The (Tacoma) News TribuneNovember 6, 2010 

Call Election 2010 the year of the Terrible Toos.

As in too many polls, too many attack ads and hit-mail pieces, too much anonymous and underreported money and too many ballots still uncounted.

None of this is new. And maybe we are too close to the just-completed election (except for those uncounted ballots, of course) to make comparisons. But it does seem that all four trends are advancing from bad to worse.

Too Many Polls: There weren’t just too many bad polls, there were too many good polls.

The bad polls use poor methodology and cheap techniques to reach lousy results. We saw those in the wildly differing numbers in our U.S. Senate race, with Patty Murray up as much as double digits in some polls and trailing by half that in others. They confuse more than they illuminate, the opposite of what news coverage should strive for.

But we also saw more excellent polls that accurately showed that the race was close. Add sophisticated computer modeling by skilled statisticians and most races across the country finished within tenths of a percentage point of what was predicted.

That rendered election night a rather dull confirmation – race-by-race and state-by-state – of what the pros predicted.

Where’s the fun in that?

Too Much Negative Campaigning: Right. Complaining about negative ads is like complaining about the Mariners. Sure, it’s depressing, but it’s not like anything is going to change.

But this election, there was so much extra money around and most was spent not by the candidates but by independent groups (see below).

Negative campaigning exists because it works. And a certain amount is necessary to hold incumbents accountable for their acts and votes in office. But the ratio between ads that promote a candidate and those that tear down another seems to shift to the negative each election.

More and more, voters are persuaded less to vote for one candidate than to vote against another. That increasingly taints their view of the system, and such cynicism makes it tougher for the winners – the ultimate beneficiaries of negative campaigns – to govern.

The political insiders aren’t going to stop. The solution – and I’m not holding my breath – is for people to mute the TV ads and recycle the election mail unread.

Too Much Anonymous Cash: Reformers keep trying to limit contributions and require disclosure of donations and spending. Yet each attempt to control and expose political money is usually thwarted by clever politicos and skeptical courts.

One unintended consequence of donation caps, for example, is the explosion of independent expenditures that aren’t capped and are much harder to track.

The anonymity increased this year with a court decision that freed corporations and unions to make more contributions and clever manipulation of tax and disclosure laws to thwart disclosure by the likes of Karl Rove at the national level and Lisa MacLean here in the state.

With less chance of blow-back toward the candidate or the sponsors, attacks by independent expenditure campaigns with undisclosed contributions are free to become ever more negative.

Perhaps the time has come to remove all caps but demand complete and immediate disclosure of contributions and spending.

Too Many Uncounted Ballots: Supporters of all-mail elections considered Oregon a model. That state has pioneered the abandonment of the physical polling place.

Washington is nearly there as well, with only Pierce County – reluctantly – letting voters choose in-person voting. Soon, it seems, Pierce will be told by the state to shutter its polls.

But Oregon does something Washington doesn’t. Ballots must be received by Election Day, not just postmarked. So Oregon doesn’t suffer through lingering vote counts that delay final results and feed conspiracy theories of stolen elections.

How about this? Require mail ballots to be received by the counties by Election Day. Those who don’t want to vote until the last minute can take their ballots to various locales around the state and hand them to elections officials.

We can call them “polling places.”

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