It seems that one of the only things Republicans and Democrats can agree on these days is a desire for this presidential election to end.
Yet even though, for many, this election has felt less like an aspirational journey than a joyless slog, the amount of media attention it’s generated has one important benefit to it: Voters are informed about the two main candidates.
After a bombardment of political advertising, countless hours of television coverage, and myriad newspaper articles, candidate interviews, and Facebook posts, the American people have a pretty good idea of the candidates' backgrounds and least some of their views on important policy matters.
But once voters make an informed decision about the presidential election, they often scan the rest of the ballot only to be confronted with a dizzying array of people they've never heard of, running for offices they didn’t know existed until that moment.
Not only will voters be asked to render an informed judgment on presidential and congressional elections, but they will be expected to do so for their state representatives, their county commissioners, their secretary of state, and an intimidatingly long list of judges. In Chicago, the average ballot has 101 candidates. In Los Angeles, there are 17 statewide ballot measures.
The unspoken truth is that faced with a long ballot, unfamiliar names, and strange offices, most voters will simply guess — or leave portions of their ballot blank.
Many people fail to think about the races below the presidency or Congress
Studies have found that in the absence of information, voters make decisions based on candidates’ names, gender, ethnicity, sometimes even ballot position. Researchers from the University of Virginia estimate that candidates listed first on the ballot can receive up to 5 percent more votes than candidates listed lower. More than 30 percent of voters will fail to complete their ballot. Political science professors have called this the SAT effect — when you don’t know, leave it blank.
You can’t blame voters. Our ballots are long and complicated, and even astute political pundits can be flummoxed by the candidates for soil and water conservation commissioner.
Luckily, there are a number of resources that can help voters make sense of their ballot and learn who these elected officials are, including state voter guides, bar association recommendations, and organization endorsements. We proudly sit on the board of a new nonpartisan voter guide called BallotReady.org that’s working to help voters get to know all the candidates on their entire ballot.
Backed by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, the National Science Foundation, and the Knight Foundation, BallotReady shows voters every race and referendum on the ballot. (You type in your address to get tailored information.) From there, voters can compare candidates based on biography, stances on issues, news articles, and endorsements. Once a voter has made a decision, she can save her choices to print at home or pull them up on her phone in the voting booth.
Local politics isn’t flashy, but it’s consequential
Our decades in politics, advising candidates at the local, state, and national level, have taught us that elected officials matter all the way down the ballot. They make decisions that affect our lives every day — from monitoring water quality to levying taxes and deciding how that money will be used to choosing the leadership of our schools. If these officials make poor policy decisions, the consequence can be costly.
And whether or not they’re doing a good job, once in office, elected officials benefit from an incumbency advantage — more money, higher name recognition — that makes them difficult to replace. Most of Congress remains in office year after year, despite consistent high disapproval ratings.
Our democracy will only grow stronger as more people — Republicans, Democrats, and independents — go to the voting booth feeling prepared and empowered.
This election, we've committed to voting informed on the entire ballot, from the presidency on down to the most local of races. And we hope you will, too, making full use of all the resources available, including BallotReady.
David Axelrod is the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, a CNN senior political commentator, and the author of Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. Mike Murphy is a veteran Republican media consultant who has led campaigns for more than two dozen GOP governors and senators.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at email@example.com.