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Elections past and future: Thoughts and a reader contest

November 08, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

The votes are being cast as I write this and early reports indicate that there were lines when many Washington County polling places opened at 7 a.m.

There was only a light sprinkle of rain when I left the Leitersburg polling place at 7:15 a.m., but the forecast was for heavier showers to come. I hope the issues facing this county and the nation are worth running through a few raindrops.

I am not sure what more The Herald-Mail could have done to cover this election. The newspaper partnered with Hagerstown Community College, the League of Women Voters and Antietam Cable TV to put on televised forums before and after the primary elections.

We also did online chats with candidates for sheriff and state's attorney and printed the transcripts of those on the following Sunday. There were also numerous newspaper articles and a voters guide from the League of Women Voters.

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By Election Day, if you didn't know anything about the candidates, it wasn't because the information wasn't available -and in many forms.

Toward the end of the campaign, the editorial page staff left out a number of syndicated and personal columns and didn't write editorials so that we could print as many election-related letters as possible.

We didn't get them all in. We're not happy about that, though some were hand-delivered on Friday, after we had already told readers we were out of space.

Some other, longer letters concerned candidates' alleged involvement in certain legal matters that might have been printed (in some edited version) had we been given enough time to investigate writers' claims.

That's something to remember for the next election cycle - if a candidate has done something on the public record that you feel the voters should know about, don't deliver that letter a week before the election. Chances are, with everything else that is going on, I won't have a chance to look into it as closely as I should.

Also, for the future, I'd like to ask readers this: Does it affect your feelings about candidates if their friends and relatives write letters praising them? It is nice to know that Candidate X is compassionate and a devout person, but it doesn't tell me much about his or her leadership abilities.

Another possibility: As a member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, I am regularly sent e-mail updates on what other editorial page writers are doing.

Some papers are posting every letter they get on their Internet Web sites, then choosing the best for publication in their print editions. Is this a good idea or not?

A few things I believe would be good ideas include:

· Revive the Kids Voting Project, which began here in 1996 under the sponsorship of Allegheny Power and collapsed after the power company hit a rough patch.

It encouraged students to accompany their parents to the polls, where they could cast their own ballots in a straw poll.

Some local schools really embraced the idea, holding parades and other activities to spur enthusiasm.

Research showed that the program actually helped the academic performance of children of lower-income families. If an entire generation could go through the Kids Voting process, we might get a larger pool of county residents who are accustomed to paying attention and participating in elections.

Create an annual fundraiser for the League of Women Voters (LWV) that would allow the nonpartisan group to pay Antietam Cable TV to edit tapes of candidate forums to remove "dead time" and place the question on the screen as the candidate answers it.

Antietam Cable has been generous, but if making the forums more visually interesting requires some additional expense, those concerned about an informed electorate should be willing to help raise some cash.

This next one sounds like fantasy, but it's technically feasible. It goes like this:

· Wire an auditorium so that after a candidate answers a question, the audience could respond by clicking a keypad on which these choices would be found: Answered the question well, sort of answered the question and didn't answer the question at all.

Such an instant poll would force candidates to be knowledgeable and honest, as opposed to dancing around the subject. The technology worked on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," so why couldn't it work here?

· Finally: What do you think? Tell me how you believe the election process could be improved and I'll give the writer of the best letter a $25 gasoline card. Deadline is Monday, Nov. 13.

Send letters to Election Contest, c/o Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagers-town MD 21740. Or e-mail to opinion@herald-mail.com.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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