Here are some random thoughts that occurred to us after the primary election wound up on Aug. 15:
• Citizens are not normally surprised when, dry cleaners, presidents, or journalists make mistakes. But they seem to feel that the people who run our elections must do absolutely flawless, watertight work. Occasional problems are greeted with a level of outrage and suspicion normally assigned to the Internal Revenue Service or the CIA. In Washoe County, the voter registrar’s office had to operate 93 polling places strung across the county to accommodate 70,000 voters (that number rises in general or presidential elections). If there was any reason to believe that county voter officials were not treating that process with the reverence it deserves, that would be cause for concern. But there is no evidence of that.
• Posting the obituary of deceased candidate Kathy Augustine (whose name remained on the ballot) at polling places or having poll workers inform voters of her death was a mistake. Polling places have long been regarded as sacrosanct, where no attempt to influence the votes of residents will be made. To make an exception to that, for whatever good reason, is a slippery slope. What will the next good reason be? It’s the job of voters to inform themselves about the candidates. It is not the job of poll workers to inform voters about the news. It is the job of voters to inform themselves. If there were voters who were so ill-informed that they did not know that the state controller died, for crying out loud, that is their responsibility.
• The defeats of political fringe candidates Barbara Woolen and Sharron Angle provided an encouraging sign from voters that we hope will be absorbed by other candidates. Woolen, who ran a one-issue, meanspirited campaign, and Angle, who just plain ran a meanspirited campaign, got what they deserved at the hands of Republican voters. Angle’s close loss can conceal the fact that two more mainstream candidates split the moderate vote, leaving her with a paltry 34.53 percent of the vote. We hope these outcomes are signs that voters are becoming fed up with candidates who offer little more than malice and polarization.
• Another development is less encouraging. The fate of former state legislator Dawn Gibbons demonstrates clearly that voters do not mean it when they say they dislike negative campaigns. In that three-way race between Gibbons, Angle and Dean Heller, Angle (and the Club for Growth political action committee that fueled her campaign) launched the first negative attacks. Gibbons and Heller both held back on responding. Finally Heller felt he had to respond or lose, and he fought back—and when he did, his television spots attacked not just Angle but also Gibbons. Gibbons, meanwhile, kept plugging away at her campaign and ran spots that did not attack her opponents.
In the end, Gibbons was left in a murderous crossfire, attacked by both Heller and Angle. “I didn’t mention them,” she said goodnaturedly after the election. “But, they sure mentioned me, didn’t they?” She saw her poll ratings decline under the onslaught, and she came in third in a race she once dominated. She handled the ordeal with dignity and grace, but voters provided evidence that they will reward negative campaigning. It is more clear than ever that negative campaigning is not something that candidates do to voters, it is something that voters do to themselves.