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June 08, 2006

Tilting at windmills...

Time to mount the faithful Rocinante, take lance in hand and charge that windmill ...

The turnout in Iowa's primary election Tuesday was pretty bad. Just 11 percent of registered voters state-wide bothered themselves; in Scott County, the figure was an ever-so-slightly better 12.3 percent in an election featuring real congressional races in both parties, a gubernatorial contest in one and several legislative races. Yawn, went the voters.

Understandable. The candidates on the ballot Tuesday had been tugging on our sleeves, begging attention for months. Now the survivors will be doing the same for an additional five months, until November's general election. About 95 percent of us are simply going to tune it out. The campaigns will become just so much background noise. A good many of us will ignore it so successfully we'll even miss the fact when actual, factual Election Day arrives.

Couldn't we just compress the season? Have the primary elections in, say, late August or, even better, the first week of September? Seems to me that sharply shortened campaigns would turn elections into events worthy of attention rather than processes that bore us into ignorance. A bigger gain might be that people elected to office could spend a little more time tending to business beyond that of getting re-elected.

Actually, Iowa is better off than many states. Our June primary seems downright reasonable compared to places like Illinois, where the primary is in March, eight months before the general. That's past yawn-inducing; it's snore-producing.

In any case, state and federal representatives elected this fall will take office in January, 2007. Within a year, it'll be time to start dealing with the mechanics of re-election, collecting signatures and filing petitions, putting together a campaign staff, raising money, etc. Legislating will be on the back burner for half or more of the two-year terms these people serve.

Most all politicians recoil in horror at the thought of a shorter campaign season. How ever, they ask, could a primary winner get organized in just 60 days? How could the needed money be raised in just 60 days?

The first answer, I guess, are that if you win a primary, you ought to be able to hit the ground running as far as message and positions go. Secondly, who says the money is "needed"? Most of it tends to go to pay for television advertising, which is one of the great banes of healthy politics. TV political ads are on the whole inaccurate, misleading, nasty and ugly -- and that's the good things about them.

There are certainly better ways to communicate with voters these days. A candidate with a good website and good imagination could reduce TV advertisers to the occasional 10-second bit that says "find out all about me at voteforme.com, or whatever. Maybe someone will work up enough nerve to try that someday.

On a sort-of-related note, a good many Davenporters think a good way to deal with electiion fatigue would be stretch the terms of the mayor and city council members from two years to four years. There'll apparently be a special election on that question within the next couple of months.

Hard to get excited one way or the other. Yeah, the accountability imposed by two-year terms is a good thing; so would be the somewhat greater stability and continuity of four-year terms. If the council elections were as protracted as those for state and federal reps, I might favor the longer terms. But the gap between council primary and general elections is short. So is the leash two-year terms put on the alderpeople.

Hmnmm, short leashes .... good.

Posted by jcb at June 8, 2006 03:28 PM


During my years working in the Illinois General Assembly, there were a steady stream of election reform bills introduced to change the date of the Illinois primary to April, May, June, July, August or September. There is merit in moving our March primary date to June or August, but for whatever reason those initiatives don't generate enough votes. I hope we make that change in the future because I think it will help increase primary turnout in Illinois. Michigan, for instance, has an early August primary. That sounds pretty good to me.

Posted by: Porter McNeil at June 8, 2006 11:34 PM

I grew up in a state with a September primary. It was awful; pols started with the base in the Spring, like in an Iowa primary, and then have to run all Summer as if they had already won the primary. By September everyone, I mean everyone, was tired with no chance to tune it out or regroup before November. Moreover, a candidate doesn't have a chance to fine tune their message if they start to find the campaign going off course.

Posted by: iowa ennui at June 9, 2006 10:43 AM

Porter -- way back in '80's, as Dispatch edit page editor, I encouraged the occasional soul who spoke up in favor of a later primary. The idea won't die, probably because it's a good one.

But it never gets anywhere, either. Incumbents must like it.

Iowa ennue -- time to "fine tune the message ... "? Is that to say, decide which part of the base to abandon, now that a broader constituency is to be reached?

Most candidates know from the start how far toward the center they intend to once the "base" has played its part in the primary. Sixty days in more than enough time to get from here to there.

Posted by: jcb at June 10, 2006 09:44 PM

In my view, part of the problem is that elections never end---especially if you live at the tip of the spear of presidential politics, like we do.

I don't watch that much TV, but it seems as if every time I turn the danged thing on there is some lame political ad. Why are we forced to view anti-Topinka ads in June when the primary was in March and the general isn't until November?

I suffered through the Iowa ads for their primary, even though none of the names were familiar (although I hope that guy who was ranting about how Bush Lied! (tm) was defeated).

But the worst is having to endure the media hullabaloo about those running for POTUS. Good lord people, here it is June '06 and we're reading about Daschle in town promoting his candidacy? Spare me.

But even worse, is the fact that those of us in the ILQCs have to endure all the Iowa POTUS hysteria, even though by the time the IL primary rolls around in March, the candidate is already selected. I always vote for my failed candidate anyway (McCain, Dr. Yeeeargh, etc.) as a protest.

Don't the British have a 90 (or is it 60) day campaign period? Wouldn't that be better than the continual election cylce we must endure?

Posted by: paladin at June 11, 2006 02:41 PM

I can attest for the fact that a March Primary (especially one in which the people felt as though they were voting for the 'next sacraficial lamb to Lane Evans') was virtually impossible to get anyone to care (other than the connected few).

I suspect that this had more to do with the race than the calendar (however, it did not seem that the Governors race had that much excitement either).

Maybe the calendar is not the issue. I believe that the politicians have succeeded in making the voters almost universally disconnected and apathetic.

Posted by: Jim Mowen at June 12, 2006 06:38 AM