Does My Voice Count?

Money in politics makes you wonder...

My first “real job” in Madison was in politics. I was hired to raise money for a congressional candidate who was really good at fundraising and presented voters with a very clear choice between himself and his opponent. But we were running against a popular incumbent and name recognition was a big problem. The campaign never gained the momentum—or financing—it needed to beat the considerable odds. Some twenty years later, our campaign headquarters is now the Old Fashioned on the Square and only diehard politicos remember the race at all.

While I think back on that time fondly, it’s hard to imagine working in politics today. And I certainly couldn’t ask people to donate money anymore, when campaign spending is such a dirty, out-of-control business. That the money raised is mostly spent on vicious attacks on the opposition is terribly disappointing. It’s one hatefest after another and, sadly, every candidate knows the best way to get elected is to go negative. Voters complain, but studies—and election outcomes—show negative campaigning has an effect on our voting decisions. Why else would candidates and third parties spend so much money on trashing the competition? If positive campaigning proved effective, you bet we’d see more of it.

A UW–Madison student from the Milwaukee area recently told me she has such distrust for the media that she forms her opinions by studying campaign literature on websites and watching the occasional interview or debate. Even the newspaper turns her off because it publishes all the vitriol and he-said-she-said, which she associates with negative campaigning rather than a sacred space for fair and objective reporting. Despite journalism’s neutrality (and I’m not talking FOX and MSNBC—that’s not journalism, that’s choir preaching), she trusts politicians (politicians!) to adequately portray their views and intentions, and then decides which ones to support accordingly.

It’s a relief to know that she votes at all. Last June, a friend told me she might not cast a vote in the recall election because she was opposed to the very idea. Things had gotten too out of hand. If Wisconsin voters wanted to oust a sitting governor, she thought, they should have to wait until the next regular election. In all my years of patriotic voting it hadn’t occurred to me that not voting, particularly in an election of this magnitude, was an option.

Has choosing not to vote become its own act of citizenship?

In addition to negative campaigning’s strategic effect on voting patterns, it’s also well known to have an impact on turnout. Average Americans have become so fed up with the money and fearmongering that we’ve stopped listening to the rhetoric altogether. We skip the articles on partisan squabbling because they’ve become ubiquitous and tiresome. We don’t even believe what we read in the paper anymore. At home or in the car, we caution our children that the radio and TV ads are lies, no matter who’s telling them. And in the end we wonder if a trip to the polling place is really worth our time. We’ve become actively apathetic. Ironic, isn’t it? In America—the bastion of democracy—the political system is so broken that it’s hard to blame people who feel free not to vote because the money is as potent as drawing the line between the arrows on a ballot.

In 1992, I voted in the presidential election for the first time. It was exhilarating. I truly believed it mattered. Two decades later, casting my vote is perfunctory. Like paying taxes, it’s just something I have to do because if I don’t I’ll be shirking my citizen duties. Also, I don’t want my daughter to get the idea that her vote won’t count someday, even if I’m not so sure it will.

The tiny speck of good news in all this is the push for transparency and the Internet’s ability to reveal infinite information about people and organizations. In the world of journalism, money in politics has become a beat of its own. There are reporters out there who cover campaign finance exclusively—that is, if you’re still interested.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more columns here.

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