Elections, your mother and other deep thoughts

Claude Paquin's picture

In a July 3 column by Scott Bradshaw, we’re asked to consider whether having unopposed local incumbents in our elections is a blessing or a problem.

Let me first explain the obvious: for an unopposed incumbent, being unopposed is largely a blessing. I have yet to see one who openly challenges anyone to “bring it on” before the qualification period expires.

Moreover, it seems to be standard fare for incumbents, and even contestants in races with no incumbent, to avoid any mention of their opponent(s). Unless the media help the voters understand their choices, most voters are manipulated through yard signs and a few other ways of developing familiarity with the candidate’s name.

Does Coke ever advertise it’s running against Pepsi? Nah! Coke promotes Coke. Pepsi promotes Pepsi, with an occasional exception featuring a Coca Cola truck driver. And that’s the way political campaigns generally work.

I once attended a Republican teaching session for potential candidates, from which I brought back two kernels of political wisdom.

The first lesson was about political ads.

You want people to remember your name. Showing your picture is generally a waste of space, because in the voting booth people will see your name and may recognize it. Your picture is not on the ballot and of no help. The wording on your signs and ads has to be short and in big letters. The time devoted to looking at your signs will be short.

The second lesson was about my mother.

What I was told, which makes sense, is that my mother will always vote for me, and my opponent’s mother will always vote for my opponent. There is no point in trying to convert my opponent’s mother to my side, and I don’t need to work hard to persuade my mother to vote for me.

In between these two mothers, there is a whole range of people with varying degrees of likes and dislikes for each candidate. After consolidating the base (the people whose thinking is close to his mother’s), a candidate has to extend that base by reaching out to people close to the middle so he may secure the 50 percent he needs. Anything above 50 percent (plus one) is a waste.

There’s more that I learned, of course.

It seems that it pays to avoid having positions on a whole slew of issues, because it takes only one issue that a voter disagrees with to lose that vote. Voters can be vindictive and strong-headed. Some of these people are called one-issue voters, and it doesn’t pay to alienate them. So vagueness and generalities pay off.

A manipulative system like this tends to discourage people with ideals and vision.

Some of the people who offer for public office in elected positions are brave. Some are naive. Some go from idealistic to discouraged after they have been rebuffed.

If one looks carefully at the list of unopposed local incumbents provided by Scott Bradshaw, one sees mostly people in full-time positions without much policy-making content. These people, mostly judges and prosecutors, make a lifetime career of what they do.

Most judges don’t know how to campaign because it’s just not part of the mindset expected of a judge. Many states have adopted “retention elections” for judges, where the voters can vote to dismiss a judge they don’t like without waiting for a lawyer to challenge the incumbent, but Georgia has not been progressive enough to do that yet.

All these candidates have to pay up 3 percent of their annual salary just to be on the ballot and retain their office. For a judge making $140,000 a year, that’s $4,200 out of pocket. Is that fair? No. (Not tax-deductible either.)

Should the judge be challenged by a local lawyer, who also has to pay the $4,200 up front, then the huge expense and time-consuming effort of trying to stir up enough interest to move the needle beyond 50 percent come in.

A judge who does not make it in the election loses his job and has to start something else somewhere. A lawyer who runs for judge has an uncertain future all through the election period, which discourages potential clients who fear their lawyer may shortly become unavailable. Should he or she win, the lawyer then faces the task of closing up the office (with a lease which may not conveniently end when the judgeship starts), and also faces heart-wrenching decisions about the staff, existing clients, etc.

When Scott Bradshaw writes, “The lack of competition in the majority of races should cause some soul-searching by community leaders, political party officials and aspiring politicians,” he has a point. But the solution is not to encourage more contests and more voting opportunities for voters who already have so little opportunity to acquaint themselves with the candidates for contested posts.

We Americans like sports. Sports are contests. Chipper Jones is not called upon to pay 3 percent of his salary every four years to retain his job, and he is paid (handsomely) for entertaining the public. Professional wrestlers don’t wrestle unless they’re paid. Politics may be entertaining to some, but few people want the dubious privilege of paying money and begging for money to entertain people who like contested elections.

With honest and intelligent politicians and other elected officials who don’t need replacing too often, we need have no fear of unopposed incumbents. However, we do need to reform our election system, and it’s good to see Mr. Bradshaw start a conversation about that.

[A retired lawyer and actuary who resides in Fayette County, Claude Y. Paquin once ran in an election for the now abolished office of Justice of the Peace with eight candidates, of which two were lawyers. The first two names in alphabetical order got the most votes, a homemaker and a pig farmer, and the pig farmer won the run-off.]

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