Duping the dumb voters

The “No New Taxes Party” candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s new 2nd District is admittedly nothing of the sort. Sam Garst believes in a well-funded, activist government and has generally opposed attempts to reduce tax burdens. He’s a longtime Democratic and environmental activist and says that he’s using the conservative adage in an effort to siphon votes from Republican John Kline and thereby boosting the prospects of Kline’s opponent, Democrat Bill Luther.

It’s a bold stunt for sure, one that has garnered much ink and airtime this past week. Remarkably, the Luther camp has tried to laugh off Garst’s candidacy as “a funny joke.” In response, Kline has gone on the offensive, launching a series of television ads charging that the tactic “undermines the political process.”

Now, a cornerstone of our democracy is that anybody can run for any office espousing any viewpoint or ideology – genuine or not. Garst is certainly free to run under any banner he chooses. However, the real problem is that such a prank, in a tight race decided by a generally apathetic public, just might work. It’s sad to say, but the Kline campaign is right to be concerned.

Political apathy among Americans is a real and serious problem. Although Minnesota fares better than most states, voter turnout is dismal. Few people can name the candidates vying for office, much less reasonably assess their quality. Newspaper readership is on the decline, and is being increasingly replaced by sound-byte blurbs and television ad spin. Distressingly, those who do vote are often uninformed, making the decoy candidacy a potentially potent political tool.

Ours is a participatory democracy – no one is forced to vote, or to vote intelligently, for that matter. But the issues facing our state and nation are no less important than our personal and economic security and our quality of life. Nuclear terrorism, global warming, a sliding stock market: These are real threats that demand a responsive political system, and a responsive political system demands an active and informed citizenry. It begins with the people, and as this election approaches, the people would be wise to get involved.

Some have opined that the Garst campaign will only serve to increase the public’s cynicism about politics. While that’s true, what’s more distressing is the general apathy that allows politicians to think such a trick could work in the first place.