Do your homework, and be sure to vote
WALWORTH COUNTY With their mudslinging and vacuous ads, primary elections can be frustrating for voters, especially this year with the date moving from September to August.
Yet, primaries can be all important, for the winner is often guaranteed election. In more than a quarter of state legislative districts, for example, there is no November contest or only a token one.
Because primary candidates share a party label, they often vary little on issues. They often seek to differentiate themselves on superficial grounds by attacking each other, inventing issues or stockpiling irrelevant endorsements.
How, then, is a primary voter to make an intelligent, informed choice?
The best way is to talk to a candidate. Look past generalizations and evasive answers. Ask probing questions, such as these:
How have you served your community -- beyond running for office, or being active in a political party or interest group? A useful mix might include service clubs, civic organizations or volunteer work for a school, church or charity
What is your job experience? Substantive work in finance, health care, agriculture, law or business provides perspectives the legislature needs but often lacks. Political internships, Capitol staff jobs and lobbying work are the most common backgrounds of today’s state and national politicians.
Prior government experience is not a prerequisite, but what evidence do you provide of dedicated service, elected or unelected, at the municipal, school or county level? This is the kind of involvement that suggests sincere commitment, as opposed to short-term resume building aimed at advancing a political career.
How widespread is your support -- geographically, professionally and philosophically? Amassing endorsements is easy for candidates connected to a single party or interest group. It signals acceptance by a limited part of the political spectrum but says little about a candidate’s ability to build coalitions or seek advice from diverse constituencies. These are the kind of credentials that eventually separate a legislative workhorse from a political show horse.
Issue positions in candidate advertising are particularly misleading. Are they limited to slogans, such as “support schools,” “create jobs,” “protect the environment” or “cut red tape”? Or do they demonstrate keen insight and an appreciation for complexity?
What kind of campaign is a candidate waging? The answer provides clues to how he or she will govern after the election. Does he attack opponents but say little about his own talents and ideas? Is the campaign mechanical and textbook, suggesting behind-the-scenes orchestration from a consultant or party machine? Or does it exhibit creativity and unconventional thinking that reflect a candidate’s personality?
Finally, ask the obvious: Why are you running? If it lacks sincerity, credibility or specificity, it says something about candidate character and motivation. And that may matter most of all.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance is an 80-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to government research and citizen education. It is not connected to any state or national groups and takes no government money.
(Editor’s note: Read previews of the primary races from last Sunday’s paper at www.communityshoppers.com.)
Election at a glance
When: Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012
Polls open: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Register: You can register at the polling place as long as you have valid proof of residency. Valid forms of ID are listed at gab.wi.gov.
Party affiliation: Voters can only vote in one party’s primary.
Voter ID: No ID is required for registered voters
Find your polling place: http://vpa.wi.gov/.