11 November 2012

Voting: it all ads up.

Democracy is, in its crudest form, a numbers game, and while many this week were focusing on the number 270, as the total number of electoral college votes the US Presidential candidates had to reach, some were pointing to some other numbers. Two billion, for example - the amount in dollars spent by both candidates to achieve the same outcome on 6 November as there had been on 4 November. One of the things Mitt Romney and I have in common is the fact that neither of us is the US President, but the difference is, I haven't just spent millions of dollars not to achieve that. Makes me feel a bit better about not winning the lottery.

This may seem like a lot of money - a point has been made repeatedly across the world's media - but is it really? It's the same amount of money the USA spends in Afghanistan every week. It's the same amount shrugged off in May by JP Morgan as a loss by another rogue trader. Most interestingly of all, it's the same amount of money the US government spent NOT building a large hadron collider in Texas before CERN came along - because they took the idea of a "God Particle" literally, and then changed their minds when they realised what it meant. Frankly, if it cost any less than $2bn to elect the most powerful man in the world, I'd be thinking we weren't taking it all that seriously.

The number that tells me it was being taken seriously was 1,000,000. This was the number of TV ads run by both sides. If this were to be run on a continuous loop 24-hours a day, it would take almost a year to run them all. A million ads maybe doesn't seem a lot across such a big place as the US, but when you consider the overwhelming majority were probably run across half a dozen battleground  "swing states", that's a year of pretty horrific television for a large minority of the people. Personally, I'd find the idea of living in Florida bad enough in itself, without Mitt Romney interrupting Mad Men every five minutes to tell me Paul Ryan can bench press 300 lbs. I suppose the reason Romney attacked PBS was because it was the one place he couldn't buy airtime.

On our own shores, nearly as much passion and interest has been shown in next week's elections for regional police commissioners. If by 'passion' you mean 'indifference' and interest, you mean 'ennui'. In The 'States, the idea of publicly elected policemen is the norm, of course, along with judges, school commissioners and the local rat catcher, and they sensibly put all the choices on the same Presidential ballot. Here we've decided it's such an amazing opportunity to spend £75,000,000 of public money we don't have, we're going to give it an election all of its own - to almost universal indifference. Turnout next week is expected to be between 10 and 15% of the eligible electoral role. Considering we cannot even choose our own Head of State or upper chamber of the Legislature, you'd think we'd jump at the chance to pick our local top coppers.

Maybe this problem, along with the overall decline in voter turnout at General and Local Elections, stems from the fact that, unlike in the USA, candidates cannot advertise on TV, except under highly restricted conditions. Maybe the government could enact legislation that would trigger the right to advertise on TV at the next elections, if turnout at these ballots falls below, say, 40%. The threat of allowing televisual political spam could, I believe, act as a powerful incentive to drive up voter participation levels in future elections. Instead of fining non-voters, like they do in Australia, we'd threaten to subject everyone to more politicians. Before long, self-formed neighbourhood citizens groups would march the streets with burning torches to drive the under-motivated to the polling stations. Which would at least give the new Police Commissioners something to do.

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