Making Democracy Work


(or: How to Vote Smart!)

Vote Smart!



STEP 1 - Decide What You Are Looking For In A Candidate

Candidates can be judged in two ways: the positions they take on issues and the leadership qualities and experience they would bring to the office. Both are important. The first step is to decide the issues you care about and the qualities you want in a leader.

STEP 2 - Gather Materials About the Candidates

Sources of information may include:

- Campaign literature
- Direct mail letters
- Press reports
- Radio and television ads
- Candidates' speeches
- Candidate debates

STEP 3 - Take a Good Look at Campaign Information

- Television and radio commercials: What did you learn about the candidate from the ad? Did you find out anything about issues or qualifications? Was the ad designed to appeal to a select group (women, elderly, minorities)?
- Direct Mail: More and more candidates are using direct mail to solicit funds or votes. Recognize that the letter is a campaign tactic and try and see what can be learned from it.
- Pamplets and flyers: That leaflet handed you at the store may contain valid substantive information or it may be full of distortions and evasions. Be on the lookout for accusations or other statements about opponents.
- Emotional Appeals: Decide if a candidate's appeals are targeted at your emotions alone. Look for the facts.

STEP 4 - Recognize Distortion Techniques

- Name-calling/Appeals to Prejudice: These are attacks on an opponent based on characteristics that will not affect performance in office.
- Sidetracking: References to race, ethnicity, or marital status can be subtly used to instill prejudice.
- Guilt by Association: Look carefully at criticism of a candidate based on the candidate's supporters: "We all know Smith is backed by big money interest". Candidates need support from a wide range of people and groups who may not represent the candidate's views on all issues.
- Loaded Statements: "I oppose wasteful spending" doesn't say much ... and it implies that the candidate's opponents favor it.
- Catchwords: Beware of empty phrases such as "law and order" or "the American way". They are designed to trigger a knee-jerk, emotional reaction rather than to inform.
- Baiting: Politics is a tough game, but badgering and intimidation are unfair/unproductive campaign tactics. Think twice about a candidate who tries to make opponents look weak or out of control by harassing them.

STEP 5 - Spot Phony Issues

- Passing the Blame: When one candidate accuses another party or candidate of being the cause of a major problem such as unemployment or inflation ... CHECK IT OUT!
- Promising the Sky: These are unrealistic promises that no elected official could fulfill.
- Evading Real Issues: Many candidates work very hard to avoid giving direct answers to direct questions. Watch out for candidates who talk about benefits and never mention costs or details of how a program will work.

Step 6 - Be a Smart Poll Watcher

Before you believe everything you read in a poll ask these questions:

- Who sponsored the poll? When parties and candidates pay for polls, they may not publish unfavorable data that the poll discovers.
- Was the poll affected by a key event? Public opinion may change drastically due to a highly publicized event such as a political scandal or military crisis.
- What questions were asked? Were they slanted? You can spot blatantly biased questions, but also look for the ones that subtly steer a respondent to a certain answer or leave no room for a "Yes,if..." or a "No, but..."
- How many were interviewed? The smaller the sample of repondents, the wider the margin of error in the findings.
- How long ago? People may change their minds in a day, week, or month. Look for polls that compare current figures and past ones.

STEP 7 - Learn How Others View the Candidate

The way a candidate runs a campaign can provide clues to how that candidate will perform as a public official, once elected. A contender who runs an open, issues-oriented campaign can be expected to become an accessible, forthright and thoughtful public official.

Check the following criteria for an open campaign:

- Accessibility Is the candidate willing to debate with opponents? Does the candidate meet regularly with the press? Does the candidate accept speaking engagements before different groups, even those that might not be sympathetic?
- Information Do campaign ads provide clear information on issue positions? Can you easily obtain position papers or answers to your questions? Is the candidate's voting record easy to get?
- Openness Seeing a candidate at a rally or shaking hands in a parking lot does not tell us much about his/her positions.

STEP 8 - Sorting it all out

Ask yourself these final questions:

- Which candidates views of the issues did you agree with most?
- Who ran the fairest campaign?
- Which candidate demonstrated the most knowledge of the issues?
- Which candidate has the leadership qualities you are looking for?