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Columns Michelle Hiskey & Ben Smith

Political silence not always golden

By Ben Smith

The two-month political campaign cone of silence finally broke Sunday.

Since the May 20th Georgia primary, I have not received a single flier, heard one obnoxious robocall or discovered any earnest campaign volunteers hanging on my doorbell.

But two days before the July 22nd Georgia primary runoff election a friend sent me an e-mail telling me how to vote.

“Please know how important it is to vote in the runoff Tuesday,” wrote Margaret Hylton Jones. “I am often asked by many friends who I am supporting for public office because of my lifelong experience in Georgia politics. So I am reaching out to many friends to offer a couple of very important recommendations for critical offices.”

Reaching the less likely voter

Jones’ e-mail, is significant for largely ignored voters like me because I live in unincorporated DeKalb County, just north of the city of Decatur, in a largely white, liberal, enclave – just one piece of that greater fictional political metropolis I call Democratlanta.

At present, there appears to be little competition for my vote. The races for governor and U.S. Senate are already settled on the Democrat side, while the Republican Senate hopefuls – Jack Kingston and David Perdue – battle it out on GOP terrain in the suburbs.

That leaves the Democrat school superintendent’s and DeKalb Sheriff’s races that could be competing for my vote. But they aren’t, I’m guessing, because money is tight and I’m not the best voter investment.

Election officials are projecting a 9 percent turnout June 22nd, about the same draw as typical election runoffs when they were held in August. Supporters of moving Georgia’s July primary to May and the August runoff to late July argued that it would attract more voters. That has not happened.

The May 20th primary election drew roughly one of every four registered voters to the polls, which is comparable to past elections.

I was one of the slackers who failed to make it to the polls for the May primary. As a result, People like me probably got pushed a notch or two down on the likely voters list.

On Election Day, I suddenly had to be out of town. I wonder if I might have tried harder to get to the polls, such as showing up for early voting this year, as I typically do, had I not been so turned off by some of the candidates’ antics. The cartoon-like exaggerations and phony accusations some of the candidates hurled at each other seemed more outrageous this year.

But if the negative fliers stuffed in my mailbox and the recorded messages on my phone kept people like me away from the primary election, it seems just as likely no contact at all could lead to the same result. After all, why go vote if none of the candidates are giving you a reason to vote for them?

In the absence of traditional voter contact, do the independent efforts of Jones and others to alert friends and others about an election via e-mail and social media become more important?

Where’s the social media?

Much has been about the power of social media in political campaigns. President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns have been praised for their superior use of social media to attract voters.

GOP campaign consultant Todd Rehm said that while social media can be part of an effective campaign strategy, especially in targeting more voters to go vote in low-turnout elections, it is foolish to make it the centerpiece of that effort.

“In the 2010 election cycle, a lot of people thought there was something magical about Facebook,” said Rehm. “It can be useful for some things to the extent that if you have enthusiastic volunteers and supporters who are saying positive things in positive ways, it can help help reinforce the motivation of your base of voters and attract additional support.”

“However,” Rehm added, “when I hear a candidate say we don’t to have to raised money (for direct mail or television advertising), we’re going to use Facebook and e-mails and Twitter to win this thing, that meeting is over, because they aren’t going to win that way.”

Margaret Hylton Jones said she isn’t working for any of the campaigns she supports. Her personal get-out-of-the-vote effort is completely independent.

One person trying to make a difference

Jones, a longtime political pro who assisted candidates and worked multiple referendum campaigns before she retired from campaign consulting in 2005, picked out as many as 300 people from her neighborhood association, church, book group and other lists and e-mailed them the letter. She urged them to vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primary runoff election for Jeff Mann for DeKalb County Sheriff, Valarie Wilson for Georgia School Superintendent and for Karen Carter for DeKalb County School Board, for those who live in the candidate’s district.

The e-mail included Jones’ telephone number for those who might want more information about the candidates.

“I was not asked by any campaign to do this,” Jones said. “I am very passionate about the candidates I’m supporting. Adding 10, 20, 100 votes in a runoff, given the turnout they’re expecting, we can turn an election.”

Maybe, maybe not. But I know this much, her timely e-mail has worked on me.



Ben Smith

Columnist Ben Smith, who writes this column with his wife Michelle Hiskey, is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.


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