How to Sort Through the Overload of Political Candidate Information

How are candidates recruited? Who makes sure that they understand and follow the rules regarding campaign finance and filing deadlines? And who makes sure that they avoid media boo-boos? How can we, as voters, make sense of all the spin that churns through the merciless 24/7 media? What is real? What is true? And why is one candidate better than another when we don’t know much about any of them? Have any of these thoughts run through your mind?

It’s important to vote. I advocated that position and explained why, when I wrote “Would You Have Voted For NC Amendment 1? Why Voting In Primaries Is So Darn Important,” two weeks ago. In his comment on the article, Zachary Bendickson cited a wonderful quotation from James Garfield, which prompted Jonathan Weintraub’s reply. I have shortened their discussion for publication, but kept the spirit of it and the salient points. They ask pertinent questions:

ZB: “Now more than ever the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption." -- James Garfield

JW: I think it's bigger than that. There are memes like "the economy must grow" that take too much energy to fight ...

ZB: My comment … relies on self education so you can pick the correct candidate. Much easier than fighting an idea or movement. Also, if you educate yourself that also means if you so choose you can educate others …

JW: What if there is no such thing as "the correct candidate" and we need to educate them to go against their campaign contributors and pollsters?

ZB: You pick the candidate that you think is best for the job they are running for … You pick the one that most closely aligns with your beliefs/ideals. You do research on your … candidate and present the facts to the people you want to educate …

Their discussion lit a creative light bulb. There are clearly two themes to address: educating and recruiting good candidates (We can all point to some bad ones, can’t we? Who was the goofball in prison who put his name on the Democratic primary ballot in West Virginia?), as well as offering voters some rational and truthful information about candidates’ background, positions, and ideas.

Tip O’Neill’s adage holds true now and forever … all politics is LOCAL. No one bursts on to the national scene without working his or her way up through the ranks and getting experience in local elections. Politics is done by making contacts and doing favors for people; by knowing whose pet issues you can affect and whose wallets you can access. The race for seats on the local school board has nothing to do with the national debt ceiling … if the candidate spouts off about that issue but can’t answer questions about charter schools or vouchers … red flag! Regarding the recruitment of candidates for office -- any office for any party -- there are a few things to remember:

1.  National Party Committees oversee the candidate recruitment efforts for senatorial and congressional races, and for president. The RNC and DNC are the main organizations in charge of raising funds and keeping track of candidates’ progress. Each major party has state and county subsidiaries that supervise local activities. You can find these websites online fairly easily. Once you find them, though, sifting through the pleas for donations and – especially in a presidential year – party spin on issues is onerous.

2. House and Senate Democrats and Republicans have also organized their own committees for fundraising and assisting candidates for those offices.

3. All of the above avenues are ways that political parties spot and groom talent for future elections.

Both major parties have “female auxiliaries” whose purpose is to recruit and assist women candidates for office. The National Federation of Republican Women works with Republicans, of course, and Emily’s List works with Democrats. Emily’s List gave birth to Lilian’s List of North Carolina … which has successfully recruited, coached, primaried, and funded women candidates to challenge sitting members of our State Assembly who voted for more restrictions on abortions in North Carolina; elimination of funding for Planned Parenthood, etc.

If you want to make a career of politics and wonder where to start; go to your local county party organizations, or to the women’s groups. Get involved on another candidate’s campaign; pound the pavement; man the phone banks; meet the party officials. Learn the ropes; pay your dues; earn your chops.

The other side of the equation is the education of the electorate about the candidates for office and their positions on various issues. This is wholly apart from a basic civics education about the U.S. Constitution and government – which every citizen ought to have passed in high school. One’s responsibilities as a citizen require ongoing attention to changes in local and national policy.

Let us also agree that there is a big difference between the persuasive information (OK, propaganda) that candidates and their campaigns and PACs disseminate, and actual voter education.

Things to watch out for in addition to the obvious pitfalls:

1. Google and Bing sell their top search spots: don’t let that fool you when you type in “voter education” and the first three listings you get are for-profit seminars or political ads, rallies or similar.

2. Lobbyists are sneaky. They name their legitimate issue advocacy organizations with the words “Voter” and “Education” in them so that they also come up when you search. Examples: “League of Conservation Voters,” “Voters Education Institute.”

3. Radical, hate groups have also taken to inserting the words “education” and “voters” into the names or descriptions of their websites. Be very careful when you do Internet searches.

It is worthy of note that the two oldest and most reliably nonpartisan sources of information about elections, candidates, issues, and voting procedures are the American Association of University Women (AAUW, founded in 1881) and the League of Women Voters (founded in 1920). In fact, prior to 2008, the League of Women Voters sponsored and selected the moderators for televised presidential debates – which stuck much closer to national policy issues and were much less like American Idol than the idiot-fests with which we have recently been abused. Check local or state branches of both the AAUW and the League for information on local candidates and candidate fora.

Individual states often have their own non-partisan voter education sites; sometimes sponsored by the state Board of Elections but sometimes separate. North Carolina has an exceptionally friendly site that works with both the BOE and UNC-TV to keep the electorate informed and up-to-date.

The voting records of incumbent office holders are often held up by either the defending candidate or the challenger (and often distorted or exaggerated in the process) as examples of good or bad governing. For factual information on all incumbents’ voting records – which is public information – your state legislature’s website keeps the local records and the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives keep full archives of all votes on all bills. It takes a bit of sorting out, but you CAN find the information you are looking for without party bias or spin.

In researching voter education I found one more resource worth mentioning. Full disclosure: it favors progressive policy and candidates and I was unable to find a conservative resource of similar caliber. Wellstone Action was founded in January 2003, in memory of Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila, to ignite leadership in people and power in the communities, in the progressive tradition. It’s interesting to look at the way the educational information is presented … as rationally as possible and without appealing to the baser emotions.

Distinguishing between truth and propaganda has always been a difficult task for ordinary voters. Politicians and pundits know very well that the game of politics allows for a certain amount of “window dressing” in order to present one’s record or the candidate in the best possible light. Those of us who inhabit the in-between world of the blogosphere need to be sensitive to where the lines fall between fact and opinion; between truth and advocacy.

This is part one in a two-part series.