Lawn Sign Democracy

This was an election week in Lane County, but you may not have noticed. River Road residents voted to extend funding for their park and recreation district, while voters in Springfield and Junction City turned down requests to improve their schools. Barely more than a third of registered voters in these areas bothered to return their ballots, and that’s not counting those who couldn’t be bothered to register at all.

More and more, our elections are decided by fewer and fewer.

Politicians love to remind us when they are campaigning that “elections matter,” but I wonder if they believe that anymore. Those same politicians often change their tune if the voters don’t give them the mandate they wanted. Losers used to have the decency to go away after they lost. Now they fill our airwaves with incessant renditions of “I told you so.”

I had an editor in California who would tell civic groups that if they voted against education funding, they were forfeiting their right to complain when the cashier at McDonald’s gave them incorrect change. He was reminding citizens that elections have consequences.

That was 20 years ago, back when politicians campaigned so they could be given the privilege of governing. Now every piece of legislation (i.e. governance) they endorse is “graded” by interest groups and used as a “report card” in the next election. Electioneering never stops, so governing can never really begin.

Republicans in Washington, D.C. insist that the American people are on their side about Obamacare, as if it hadn’t been mentioned in the last presidential campaign. Locally, whoever finds themselves in the minority among the Lane County Commissioners often end up “phoning in” their work, hoping the next election returns the majority to them.

The petulance of sore losers would be disgusting but not distressing, except that the trends are getting worse. Why don’t we just do away with elections altogether?

We can hand our democracy over to the Nielsen ratings people. They already determine which shows stay on TV, so we can certainly trust them with something less important like who will become our leaders.

It’s time to admit that voting in America has become a quaint formality, like kissing Grandma after Thanksgiving dinner. You have to do it, and you have to look like you mean it, at least to her.

Outcomes are seldom in doubt on Election Day, although media outlets usually try to hide that fact from you, hoping you’ll pay attention to them during those hours of faux-uncertainty.

Statistician Nate Silver was the big winner from the 2012 election, because he correctly predicted all 535 electoral votes in the presidential election. He weighed each poll against its previous accuracy and against all the other current polls. Now that meta-polling has proven itself, there’ll be no way to get that toothpaste back in the tube.

By the way, they knew you were going to love that toothpaste, because they did polling and market research about what you’d like before they manufactured it. Polling makes everything more efficient on a national scale.

For local issues, polling is less effective. Collecting a representative sample to accurately predict the outcome of a Junction City bond measure would require polling almost all the residents of Junction City. That would be about as sensible as holding an election.

Fortunately, I have a local alternative that will please almost everyone. Again, we should go with what works — lawn signs. Lane County residents love announcing to their neighbors how they intend to vote on any issue, including those not being put to a vote.

Lawn signs may not have swayed a vote about Hyundai almost 20 years ago, but when people refused to remove their signs after the referendum — that got people’s attention! EmX is better known for the protest signs it elicits than for the transportation it provides. And now Willamette Street is sprouting lawn signs to advise city councilors how many lanes would be preferable.

We can skip elections on these issues and just wait until every lawn has a sign. We count the signs and we’re done. Grassroots campaigning can’t get any grassier than that.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs