Imagine you tried to vote one election day, and armed thugs were surrounding your polling place, threatening you with violence if you tried to vote. You would be outraged at someone trying to steal an election. You'd call the police or the FBI or somebody and demand that something be done about it. If you're the sort to take things into your own hands, you might even go get your own gun and come back determined to defend your right to vote.
Of course, we don't have to worry about this sort of thing happening here. After all, this is America, where everyone has the right to vote, and no one would ever consider trying to keep people away from the polls, would they?
On the other hand, it wasn't until 1966 that the Supreme Court ruled every citizen has the right to vote in every election. Before that poll taxes were a common technique for keeping the poor away from the polls (especially in the south where poor all too often meant black). Maybe a poll tax isn't quite as violent as armed thugs, but morally, it amounted to the same thing.
Of course, that time is now a generation in the past. That sort of thing could never happen today, could it? Let's take a look at the record:
You may still remember the big controversy in the governor's race in New Jersey not too many years ago when Ed Rollins was caught on tape after the election bragging about how he used "walking around money" to help keep the black vote down and get Christine Whitman elected governor. He later denied it actually happened (after seeing the huge amounts of bad press he got), but there is no denying that a professional campaign consultant thought that keeping voters away from the polls was something worth bragging about, and that's really the important point.
Of course, this is just an example of one rogue consultant shooting his mouth off, right? It can't be general practice among all campaign consultants to spend more time trying to keep people away from the polls than trying to get them to vote. Can it?
Don't be too sure. The recent book, Going Negative, documents a university study of negative campaign commercials which concluded what most people knew anyway. Negative commercials make people more cynical and less likely to vote. And simple arithmetic will tell you that the fewer people who come out to vote, the fewer votes you need to win an election.
Everyone says candidates use negative campaigns because they work. For some definition of the word "work", they certainly do work. And deeply prejudiced southern legislatures used poll taxes because they worked too. And cheap third world dictators holding "free" elections use armed thugs and intimidation because they work just as surely. The problem is, what kind of government do they produce?
So, if I have reached the point where I am so cynical I can't see the difference between our own crop of democrats and republicans slinging mud at each other and third world bullies clinging to power by violence, why do I bother to vote?
I vote, because that is the very thing the "professional" campaign consultants worked so hard to keep me from doing. All the time and money they spent on negative campaigns in order to turn me into the disgusted, mistrustful, cynical, alienated, angry white male that I am, will be utterly wasted if I actually take the trouble to go to the polls and vote.
If you are cynical and alienated too, the best remedy isn't to stay home on election day. That's just what they'd expect you to do. Don't stay home. Take your one chance to hit 'em where it hurts. Go to the polls and vote. Even if you just punch holes in your ballot at random while muttering "take that" under your breath, you will have upset the plans of the people who tried to keep you away. Better yet, if you can't come up with any other reason to vote, go vote for the candidate who was most heavily trashed by negative commercials. It's for sure that will be a vote against the candidate who used the most negative ads, regardless of which "independent" organization is technically responsible for the ads.
Looking back at what I have written so far, I fear I haven't done anything to relieve the atmosphere of distrust that I complain about, so let me end on a positive note with a pointer to one ray of hope. If you really do want to thwart the forces of negative campaigning, and bring an independent and informed mind to the polls on election day, a terrific place to start is with Project Vote Smart. Project Vote Smart is a non-partisan non-profit organization dedicated to bringing voters unbiased information about the candidates. They can be reached by phone at 1-800-622-SMART and on the Internet at http://www.votesmart.org/. They provide candidate responses to their national political awareness test (NPAT), voting records of incumbents, a collection of candidate ratings from other organizations across the political spectrum, and pointers to many other sources of political information. They even have a new project to try and track the correlation between campaign contributions and candidates positions on issues that affect those contributors. It should be loads of fun come the next election.