Earlier this week, the Carroll County Times and the Carroll County Public Library teamed up to bring Richard Kimball, the founder of the nonprofit organization VoteSmart, to Eldersburg for a presentation called “Facts Matter,” regarding voters’ rights to facts about political candidates, particularly those in Congress.
The presentation was enlightening, yet also a bit depressing.
“Dishonorable people are not new in politics, but there have never been so many dishonorable people in politics” as there are today, said Kimball, a former Arizona state legislator who once ran for Senate, losing to the late John McCain in 1986.
“The fact there are so many dishonorable people isn’t their fault, it’s the bosses’ fault,” he said. “Which means it’s our fault — the citizens.”
It was Kimball’s Senate run that opened his eyes to the behind-the-scenes happenings, the large amount of money being donated and changing hands to buy access to politicians, and how most of that money is being used not to educate the voters about where candidates stand on the issues that should matter, but instead to bury their opponent by playing voters’ emotions.
The watershed moment that spurred the creation of Vote Smart occurred during a televised debate with McCain. Kimball, running as a Democrat, recalled he had made some mistakes in the campaign, money started drying up, polls were going south, and he needed to do something to shake it up. “In my case, my opponent had a temper, and my campaign decided we would do this vicious personal attack against McCain during the closing argument of the statewide televised debate.”
During the last commercial break, just before Kimball was to give his closing statement, he had a change of heart. “I realized I didn’t dislike John, I actually liked the guy.”
When Kimball was introduced, he abandoned his prepared speech and instead said this: “Understand what it is we do to you. We spend all of our time collecting money from people we don’t really know, who are going to want access to us if we happen to win.”
He then described the three ways that money would be spent: “We hire a bunch of people to do surveys, market analysis and … determine what a woman wants to buy versus a man, a young voter versus an old voter, a white voter versus a black voter. We know exactly what you want to hear and don’t want to hear.”
Consultants are then hired to “to tailor our image to fit what we then know you want to buy. And the third and most expensive thing we do to you is we buy all the media time to bombard you with with meaningless, issue-less nonsense.”
The crowd went mild. Actually, that might be giving them too much credit. Kimball said they were dead silent. McCain gave a standard closing argument and went on to win the election in a landslide.
His message struck a chord with Republican Barry Goldwater, whose retirement from the Senate opened the seat Kimball and McCain were campaigning for, and Kimball recalled a meeting with him in Washington not long after. After clearing the room, Goldwater started ranting about how he’d gotten into politics as a city councilman in Phoenix because he felt passionate about the issues.
“He wanted to argue his case and talk to people and convince them we could do things differently and it would be improved, and he said he hadn’t been able to do it in years, because he constantly had to spent all of his time collecting money to defend himself from the well-heeled Democrats we’d been sending to campaign against him,” Kimball said.
Over time, the amount of money being collected by candidates and then spent to attack the opposition has only gone up. In his presentation, Kimball noted about $200 million was collected by candidates in 1960, Kennedy vs. Nixon. By 2008, that number had risen to $5 billion. In the last presidential election in 2016, more than $13 billion was collected.
“Almost all people who contribute to campaigns do it to encourage and support someone they like,” Kimball said, “but in 2012, we passed a benchmark, more than half that money given to candidates was used to trash their opponent.” In 2016, according to Vote Smart research, it crossed the 80 percent threshold of that money being used “to make people fearful of and trash their opponent,” he said. “We’re making people as angry as we possibly can because it’s easy to move people emotionally.
“It’s far cheaper and far more efficient to move people emotionally than intellectually,” Kimball said. “Easily in 30 seconds, you can move people’s fear of your opponent. It’s difficult and expensive to inform them intellectually.”
And that, he says, is the driving forces behind the political divide our country is facing today. Party-line voting has become the new normal, according to a 2017 articles in Forbes. “As recently as the early 1970s, party unity voting was around 60 percent but today it is closer to 90 percent in both the House and Senate.” Look no further than votes on Obamacare or the recent Republican tax plan for examples of this.
As Kimball notes, though, we cannot expect our politicians to fix this. That’s a job for their bosses. And their boss, we often forget, is us — the voters.
Vote Smart, a bipartisan effort that requires all board members to also have a political opposite on the board, was designed to provide tools to help voters sort through the nonsense and get access to facts. And it’s all free. Kimball calls it a “voter self-defense system,” and encouraged people to “be the boss.”
“You are fully capable of defending yourself, it is easy to access real time, real information about any candidate on any issue.”
Early voting in Maryland starts this Thursday, Oct. 25, and the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6. Before you go to the polls and cast your ballot, give Vote Smart a try by logging onto www.votesmart.org and get armed with the facts.