Pre-election Campaigns Feed Voter Ignorance

For the last month or so, the blogosphere rumor mill has been awash with predictions of an “October surprise.” For those not familiar with the term, an “October surprise” is a large-scale news event occurring directly before an election and usually believed to be orchestrated by a political party in order to swing voters to its side. Everything from a fall in gas prices to the removal of troops from Iraq has been suggested as a potential Republican ploy to recover from falling approval ratings this year, with the most frightening prediction, put forth by former Sen. Gary Hart: a pre-emptive attack on Iran.

Recently, though, it’s been the Democrats who have been charged with playing politics; accusations are flying that they sat on the information about Florida’s recently resigned Rep. Mark Foley until they thought it would do the most good for the midterm elections.

As worrisome as some of these predictions are, it’s the very idea of an “October surprise” that frightens me the most. It implies that, like an uninformed mob, the American public only remembers the last thing it hears. If these political ploys work, then nothing that happened since the last election actually matters. The only thing that makes a difference is what was on the television and in the headlines for the past couple weeks. But surely this isn’t true — politicians are accountable for their actions for their entire time in office, not just what happens in the home stretch, right? We can’t be that gullible, can we?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes, we are. In a world where 70 percent of Americans have no idea that Congress passed a prescription drug benefit for the elderly (according to a study by Ilya Somin of George Mason University), and where fewer than 50 percent of Americans can name one thing Congress has done in the past year (according to a 2005 CBS News survey), we can hardly expect that the public is keeping tabs on their representatives’ voting records. In fact, fewer than half of adults can even name their own representative in Congress, let alone hold their congressman accountable for his actions. And if so few know who represents them, how many bother to look up the multitude of different ballot initiatives?

And it only gets worse. Currently, 17 states allow straight-ticket voting, a process where a voter only has to make one mark to vote for all candidates of a particular political party. While some argue that political parties can act as a guide to help voters deduce candidates’ stances based on affiliation, processes like these only act as a crutch. Just because someone belongs to the same party as you doesn’t mean that you will agree with them on all topics — or even most. For too many voters, straight-ticket voting is nothing more than an excuse that lets them avoid the hard task of informing themselves about each individual candidate.

Of course, this is only a midterm election. It’s possible that many people don’t consider such an election worth their time. In the last 20 years, the percentage of eligible voters who participated in midterm elections has never risen above 40 percent (in comparison, the voter turnout for a presidential election is usually around 60 percent). But with about 40 seats in play in the House, and the extreme polarization of the two major parties, this election actually offers the chance to initiate some real change on Capitol Hill.

Without an informed electorate, the entire idea of democracy falls apart. If voters don’t truly understand what is going on in politics and vote blind, then, essentially, they are not in control of the government or its policies. The very check that the public has on its elected officials — that they have to campaign for re-election — is removed when the public no longer pays attention to what politicians are doing in office. Elections become no more than publicity circuses, where the candidate with the best smile and cutest kids can garner the most votes.

Why then, in light of rampant voter ignorance, are we still encouraging more people to vote? What purpose does it serve to have more people blindly voting for whatever candidate currently tickles their fancy? Instead of persuading more people to vote, we should encourage more people to vote intelligently. It’s actually not as hard as you might think: bipartisan Web sites like are only too happy to provide you with links to the campaigns in your local districts and summaries of the national issues, as well as a database of key voting records.

And if you think you’re an educated UCSD student who is above all this, answer quickly: Who is your representative in the California House? What about in D.C.? Can you name five things they’ve done in the last couple of years? Are you truly prepared to make an educated, rational decision?

And if you aren’t willing to make a token effort to understand this election, to act as a responsible member of society, do me a favor and stay home.