Opinion » Editorial

"Fixing" Elections



It seems clear enough that several of the City Council races just run were determined by such obvious factors as name recognition and big-money advertising. On the latter score, so numerous and ubiquitous were one successful candidate's yard signs that his campaign manager was able to say, only half-jokingly, that some of the signs probably needed to be recycled. That candidate, who campaigned in lieu of attendance at the several candidate forums held at frequent intervals and at a variety of locations, won. Yes, he probably was supported by what could be called "special interests," but so were several other candidates — well-regarded incumbents and newcomers alike.

Giving all these worthies the benefit of the doubt (and yes, there was a definite correlation between financial support and victory), we have the right to hope that they will act in office with integrity and independence.

Another feature of this and other recent political campaigns was the prevalence of attack ads on TV. Results in this sphere were hit-and-miss, though there was little doubt that the persona of Jerry Springer, television shlockmeister nonpareil, was a downer for any candidate his name was coupled with — whether a candidate was bragging of a connection, as in one case, or imputing an unsavory relationship, as in another.

Then there were the polls. Heated controversies erupted between the camps of competing mayoral candidates, both as to the reliability of these supposedly scientific surveys and to their sponsorship, acknowledged or unacknowledged. We are not in a position to judge the latter question — nor, for that matter, the former. All we can say with certainty is that the results on election day were somewhat out of kilter with any and all of the published surveys.

Today's financial-disclosure laws exist to provide curbs on overt special-interest support. The public media are similarly required to make space and time available on a non-discriminatory, first-come/first-served basis. As far as attack ads and polls are concerned, there is very little remedy, except for voters to outfit themselves with abundant supplies of those proverbial grains of salt.

In the end, it is the people themselves — not hucksters, not pollsters, not technicians, and not even the ever-burgeoning class of campaign professionals — who are charged with the duty of electing our public officials. There have been several intriguing proposals made of late for re-charging our electoral process — ranging from a guaranteed-instant-runoff formula (dependent on multiple-choice ballots for voters) to proposals for mandating majority turnouts.

But the remedy we continue to take most seriously is the one we hear the most about but which rarely gets acted upon anywhere — and in Memphis and Shelby County, never. That is the idea of publicly financed elections. Chances are, unfortunately, that the newly elected crop of City Council members will lend an open ear to the idea of continuing PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) subsidies for new industry. Even a small fraction of the money thereby given away would pay for publicly financed elections.

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