Media Power and the Vote

Conveying the importance of getting off the couch and casting a ballot

Pitiful. It's the only word to describe current voter turnout across the United States. If we don't do something about it soon, it's the word the rest of the world will use to describe the country that invented participatory democracy.

South Carolina's turnout provides an embarrassing example. Last month in statewide primaries, less than 10 percent of registered voters cast ballots in a state that ranks among the worst in voter registration. Two weeks later, a whopping 2.4 percent of registered voters turned out in a statewide Democratic run-off. It's gotten so bad there's virtually no point in calculating percentages anymore. Now, it's better to find salvation in raw numbers: Only 46,470 people voted in the Democratic run-off.

Across the country, we seem to be heading for a new national turnout low. According to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, only 16.9 percent of all voting-age residents participated in Democratic and Republican primaries this year - down from 19.6 percent in 1996, and about half of the 32.2 percent turnout in 1970. Something has to be done. With Americans being a shining light on packaging, branding, marketing, and selling anything and everything, it's logical for the best and brightest of American companies - particularly media conglomerates - to stimulate voting by packaging voting as a truly American act of participation. In other words, let's have our talented media "sell" Americans on civic responsibility and participation.

This idea might find favor with the late Robert Hutchins, chairman of a national commission that outlined a media theory of social responsibility in 1947. Fifty years ago, the Hutchins Commission highlighted how the media play a vital role in a free, democratic system by providing information to the electorate so that people can make informed decisions at the polls. These days, the media do a great job in providing that information. You can go to myriad Web sites and find position papers, campaign schedules, press releases, polls, news, and digital photos of what candidates are doing. You can read candidate positions in special local pre-election newspaper sections. And you can tune into special voting broadcasts on the TV and radio news. If that's not enough, you will be bombarded this fall with enough radio and television political advertising to make your ears ring.

The problem now, it seems, is there's so much information out there that people would rather do nothing than filter through the mess to make a decision. So, they're doing nothing. Perhaps the time is ripe for the media to use their power to urge people to do the right thing for their country by participating in the electoral process. The media could help in three ways.

On television and radio: Networks, cable companies, and media conglomerates could, separately or jointly, develop a hard-hitting public service ad package to explain why it's important to vote and thus try to boost participation.

In newspapers: Newspaper organizations across the country could make a commitment to more than the "civic journalism" that provides stories and information on selected issues to readers. They should consider inserting a regular series of innovative, informative, and catchy house ads that encourage people to vote - and to turn to the newspaper for the fullest election coverage.

On the Internet: A month ago, a group of Internet news providers, professors, nonprofit groups, and politicos met in Washington for a Harvard-sponsored conference on how the Internet could be effective in boosting voting. The consensus solution: an industry-wide Internet awareness campaign in which hundreds of sites post a clickable icon on their front page. The icon would link to information that encourages Americans to register and vote. The problems: time and funding.

Voting takes effort. It takes time, although many agree that a half hour every year or two is not a high price for a fundamental freedom for which millions died. So voting, for many Americans, isn't easy. But if they understand why it's important, maybe they'll leave the couch and try. The media fully realize how precious the First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression are. They also should realize that a freedom given by the people could be taken away if only a few people participate. It's time for the media to meet a new challenge of social responsibility and develop mechanisms to encourage Americans to vote.

* Andrew C. Brack is an Internet strategist and communications professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He chairs the Charleston County Democratic Party.

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