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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

Weekly Comment

The Power of the Airwaves and the Power of the Vote

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September 7, 2004

This entry is the first of a two-part series. The second entry will run next week.

There has been much talk this year about how widely polarized the electorate is, but there are two facts on which almost everyone agrees. First, that a lot of voters will be voting on unreliable voting systems, and second, that local television stations will be making a lot of money from political ads. These facts are not unrelated: I submit that local TV stations should use some of their political profits to produce news segments and Public Service Announcements that educate their viewers about how to vote.

Four years ago, Ohio was put on notice that it was time to get rid of punchcards. Unfortunately, that warning was not heeded in time; about 70% of Ohio voters will be using the discredited system this November. It's too late now to lament the state's failure to install a more reliable voting system for the 2004 election. Instead of just wringing our hands in dismay, however, we need to see whether we can avoid at least some of the problems of punchcards and other voting systems. What can we do to stop Ohio from becoming "another Florida"?

Perhaps the best method would be a massive educational effort put on by the county boards of elections. Some boards are trying outreach efforts. For example, in Cuyahoga County, the Board of Elections sets up a booth at various public events; they let voters see a punchcard machine, pick it up and look at it, and try it out. In addition, on the web site for the Hamilton County Board of Elections, voters can click on a "Voting Procedure Guide" that lays out eight basic steps for voting, including these three items that many Florida voters would have been glad to know in 2000:

  • Carefully punch your choices in the holes next to the arrows. If you vote for more than allowed, none of the votes you cast for that office will be counted.
  • When you have finished voting, remove your ballot card and inspect the back to remove any chad (rectangle punches) that may still be attached.
  • If you make a mistake on your Ballot Card, you are permitted to return it for a new one.

This is exactly the kind of information that can cut down on voter errors. But government outreach alone cannot do the job for this election. Government doesn't have the time, it doesn't have the money, and it can't reach all Ohio voters in the next two months. Television, however, has the money, and it has the ability to enter the home of every voter in the state multiple times between now and November 2.

Ohio has nine media markets, and the TV stations in them have been raking in millions of dollars for broadcasting political ads. Experts project that campaigns will spend 1.5 billion dollars on television advertising this year. Thanks to their location in a battleground state, Ohio television stations will take in a hefty percentage of that total. (In the month after the Democratic convention, Ohio had four of the top six markets for political commercials, according to the Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.) The money is rolling in so fast that, as one Ohio ad executive joked to a friend, "We don't know where to put it all."

Well, here's something they could do with it: they could take a tiny percentage of that money and produce news segments and Public Service Announcements to educate voters about the mechanics of casting a ballot. Some television stations may already be taking steps to educate voters, but the problems revealed in the 2000 election indicate that education needs to be offered with much more specificity and on a much larger scale. Local television is peculiarly well-suited to this task, given the state and local variations in both registration and voting. TV news and PSA's can teach voters how to verify their registration and find out where to vote, how to avoid common mistakes on each of the voting systems in their viewing area, and how to talk to poll workers if problems arise.

Providing this type of voter education can promote three goals. First, it can prevent voter error by showing registered voters how to avoid the mistakes that are common with each voting system. Second, it can educate poll workers, who may not absorb all of the details in the too-short one evening of training usually provided. (And in a typical year, many poll workers receive no direct training at all.) Finally, showing how voting works can encourage those who are unregistered to become part of the process.

Until the tornado of problems that arose in the 2000 election, TV stations could be excused for not recognizing this important need. That election showed, however, that any one of several different problems, from ballot design to voter registration lists, can make the difference in a close election. In fact, there are so many "candidates" for issues to be covered that I can't list them all in this one Comment. Tune in next week for my thoughts on how local stations can use the power of television to help their viewers use the power of the ballot.