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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Wrong Way to PSA

People have  been discussing Bridget Mary McCormack’s recent, 4-minute web ad in support of her candidacy for the Michigan Supreme Court – a video which features the reunited cast of The West Wing.  The ad is clever enough for what it is – a way to raise McCormack’s profile in a down-ballot race where citizens are less likely to vote.  And it says all the things a judicial candidate must say to win over voters: McCormack favors “justice for ordinary people, for families with sick kids, for victims of domestic violence.”  She has "fought to free innocent men and women, and put the actual criminals behind bars."  Reciting these qualities is somewhat trite, of course – what judicial candidate would ever come out as soft on crime or against families and victims? – but otherwise, it’s all well and good.  As an advertisement for a particular candidate in a contested race, it seems quite effective. 

However, a shorter version of the ad – pitched as a nonpartisan public service announcement – fails spectacularly.   That version retains the identical West Wing “walk and talk” setup but omits any specific mention of McCormack’s qualifications.  Instead, it positions itself solely as (in CJ’s words) “a gentle reminder for people to look for the nonpartisan section on their ballot and go vote there.”  Voting is important, the ad tells us, because state supreme courts rule on issues that affect millions of Americans, like civil rights, workplace rights, and the environment. 

These are certainly issues where an informed vote matters.  But in the short-form ad, the Bartlett Administration braintrust offers no guidance whatsoever on how citizens might actually cast such a vote.  Indeed, the ad doesn’t even recommend that citizens learn anything about the candidates before stepping into the voting booth.  The cognitive dissonance is jarring: your vote is critically important, the ad suggests, but not so important that you should take the time to enlighten it in any way.

The short-form PSA is all the more troubling because it deliberately targets citizens who engage in straight-ticket voting for legislative and executive races (i.e., checking one box to vote for all Democrats or all Republicans).  As Meryl Chertoff and Dustin Robinson recently highlighted, this “check one and you’re done” approach raises significant accountability problems in states with partisan judicial elections. In nonpartisan judicial races, the dangers of voter ignorance are exacerbated even further: without any readily available information, voters who otherwise rely on party affiliation are apt to choose among candidates based on factors like gender, perceived race or ethnicity, a familiar-sounding last name, or even complete whimsy.  Toby, Josh, Donna and the gang may as well look into the camera and say, “Go into the booth and flip a coin.  People’s lives depend on it.”

There are better ways to get out an informed vote in judicial elections.  Two years ago, the Colorado Bar Association sponsored this lighthearted PSA which encouraged voters to actually learn something about their judges before deciding their fates in the voting booth.  To be sure, Colorado benefits from some structural advantages over Michigan, including retention elections and a formal judicial performance evaluation program (the benefits of which I discuss here).  But at least the message in Colorado was the right one: if you’re going to vote in judicial elections, be responsible enough to learn something about the people on the ballot before you do.  Regardless of how your state chooses judges, that’s a good message for all of us to take into Election Day.

Posted by Jordan Singer on October 24, 2012 at 09:31 AM in Current Affairs, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink


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I'm not quite sure this is fair -- I don't think anyone could interpret the ad to suggest (1) becoming more informed about certain often-ignored downballot races and, (2) then casting an uninformed vote? Instead, I took it to be an attempt to get voters to REALIZE that there are non-partisan races, and pretty effective one. One ad probably can't cover both issues -- awareness of the races and information about the candidates -- it would be too long and people would change the channel. Perhaps the bar associations and/or the candidates can fill in the other bits. Nothing in the WW ad suggests that voters should *not* seek additional information about the candidates, etc. -- if anything, it seems to promote it by notifying people about judicial elections *before* election day and by pushing a general civic responsibility theme.

The possibility of crude proxy votes is, of course, a serious concern; but it seems more likely a concern with voters who don't know that they'll be able to vote on these races before they step into the booth and then notice them while filling in their ballots and make a coin flip choice. The ad may indirectly help reduce that phenomenon.

Unless of course the underlying idea is to limit voting in judicial elections to those who'll be knowledgeable about the candidates in the normal course of thier daily lives.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 24, 2012 4:48:30 PM

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