The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 8, 2004



Political signs: an endangered species in Carlisle

With the intense multimedia barrage of political advertising, mostly negative, that pounds us each day, a few political roadside signs would appear to make a mild statement. This year, however, these emblems of the American political season are an endangered species in Carlisle.

In particular, the rhyming "vote Kerry" signs erected by town Democrats seem to provoke very strong responses. Perhaps because they are maddeningly clever, or maybe because the simple rhymes carry a mocking tone, they have been targeted for destruction almost nightly. In Carlisle we presume that citizens feel it's not OK to smash the signs or drive over them, whatever the message or their own political preferences. We try to blame such acts on our out-of-town neighbors. Let's hope the perpetrators are caught. Let's hope it's no one from Carlisle.

The second threat is a town bylaw prohibiting any political signs in the town's right of way — roughly 15 feet either side from the center of the road. In addition, the Selectmen have suggested that signs are a distraction to motorists and therefore a safety hazard. The fate of political signage along Carlisle roads is likely to be discussed at the Selectmen's meeting on Tuesday, October 12.

The Selectmen should be careful what they wish for. If the bylaw were enforced, most current signs would be buried in the poison ivy and vines that line our country ways or hidden behind stone walls on our scenic roads. Rubbernecking to see what they say may be an even greater distraction. For sure, some safety-conscious citizen would solve the problem by erecting political billboards on both sides of the road where they would be easily visible in the shrubbery and not require a motorist to look across the street. My husband has suggested a cantilevered structure that doesn't actually step on the town's turf. (Does the town own the airspace?)

The easier solution is to let the signs stay by the roadside. Most of them are an all-American red, white and blue and simply label the property owner. A "Stevenson — State Representative" sign mainly says, "Here lives a Stevenson supporter." A bit of tolerance and common sense is all that is needed. There's only four weeks left. The election will be over and the ground will freeze.

Red state, blue state, third rate, why wait?

With the night of red and blue states just weeks away, it's a little embarrassing to realize just how short our attention spans are. Four years after W lost the popular vote but won the favor of the electoral college, we're not one inch closer to electoral reform. We could easily have a similar scenario this year, and it could go either way, of course.

I always need a refresher on just what the electoral college is it's so easy not to think about for four years at a stretch. So here's a recap: Every elected office in the U.S. except the presidency is filled by direct election (one person, one vote). The electoral college chooses the president, with the number of electors per state equaling the number of its senators and representatives, plus three for the District of Columbia. That's 538. It takes 270 electoral votes to become president. The electors vote according to the method chosen by their states' legislature, 48 of which allocate all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in their states. (Maine and Idaho award two votes to the statewide winner and the rest by congressional district. Colorado is voting Nov. 2 on whether to switch to a proportional method.)

All this was set up in the Constitution at a time when the population was spread out and mainly rural, and the horse was the fastest transport. It was hard for would-be voters to learn about candidates' positions. So the framers adopted a system in which wise men would vote on behalf of the people of their states, which were pretty sensitive about preserving their own interests and powers.

Fast forward. Candidates can traverse the country in hours. (They choose, because of the electoral system, to spend most of their time in a few states.) Communication can be instantaneous, and each of us can be as informed as we want to be. We have senators and congressmen to represent state and regional interests.

The problems with the EC are many: because electoral votes are not allocated purely according to population, small and rural states get more representation than big states; there is little incentive for states to boost voter turnout; campaign spending goes disproportionately to swing states; and third parties stand almost no chance. But worst is this: if you are in the minority in your state's popular vote, your vote doesn't count at the federal level. Viewed this way, in 2000, 40 million votes didn't count.

Direct elections aren't necessarily perfect either, but there can be no purer form of democracy than one person, one vote. So why not change? Eliminating the EC would take a Constitutional amendment, which would require ratification by Congress and the state legislaturesa huge leap of partisan and parochial faith. In the course of 200 years, Congress has rejected more than 700 bills seeking to abolish the EC. Short of elimination, the states themselves have the power to change the way they allocate electoral votes. And that would be a very good start.

In the last four years, we've been hung up on electronic voting and how to avoid another Florida Follies issues that are less complicated than the national dialog we need to have about how we choose our president, but something that might be good to get straight before we decide to export "freedom and democracy" to any more benighted countries.

Forum staff writers are elected by the board of directors of Carlisle Communications, Inc., publisher of the Mosquito, to provide independent commentary on matters they believe will be of interest to Carlisle citizens.


2004 The Carlisle Mosquito