DEAR READER: It's almost time again to get smart on politics

Friday, July 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:08 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 12, 2014

Dear Reader,

Managing editor Jeanne Abbott walked into the office the other day with a simple question: What should be in the Voters Guide for the Aug. 5 election?

She wasn't asking for a list of the contested races or amendments or proposed ordinances. She wanted to know what kinds of information, displayed in what kinds of ways, would be best.

I could answer with confidence because I'm blessed to have the perfect reader in my house for the occasion. 

My bride of almost 30 years doesn't like to read about politics. She really doesn't want to know much until it's time to go to the Columbia Public Library, our polling place, and vote.

Sure, she'll read the occasional campaign article or two, but it's purely accidental, like passing a car wreck on the side of the highway.

She's smarter than me on a lot of counts, and she may be here, too. A piece last week in The Washington Post cited a survey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that showed "hearing about what the government or politicians are doing" was the most frequent daily stress point for respondents.

But eventually, even she will dive in and get smart enough to cast her votes. For more than 20 years, she's relied on a voters guide in her daily newspaper.

Here's what I think she wants:

  • Everything that's on her ballot. She doesn't want to be surprised to see a name or an issue that wasn't in the voters guide, even in the uncontested races.
  • Issues spelled out. She doesn't want a lot of tit-for-tat campaign trail stuff. She wants to know where the candidates stand on the big issues, and if they are vague, she assumes it's because they are purposely that way.
  • Side-by-side comparisons. Long narrative articles are fine; she'll read those if she needs to dive deeper. But what she wants first is something she can see that has apples-to-apples comparisons.
  • A worksheet she can literally take to the polls. Today that might be on her mobile phone. In years past she would circle her choices in the newspaper and take it with her.
  • What she wants when she wants it. Normally, she'll get interested about a week before Election Day. I'm not sure whether that's driven by her needs or the newspaper's timing on voters guides.

One of the contentious issues on the ballot is to insert 63 words into the state constitution. Chris Jasper wrote a 2,500-word article this week about the so-called "Right to Farm" proposal, and I found it remarkable for its depth and clarity. His next task will be to boil that down into something brief, with links to his longer piece.

The trick with that and all the items in a voters guide is simplifying the material without being simplistic.

The Missourian has done voters guides for years. Sometimes they have consisted of little more than lists with links to stories — not enough for Mrs. Warhover. The April 2014 local election guide was closer to her liking, as it had a synopsis of each candidate and ballot issue in the list.

Online, I love the worksheet-like application used by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers in conjunction with the League of Women Voters. After you work your way through each race and ballot question, the guide can spit out a summary you can take to the polls.

Do you have guides you favor? Better ways to build the information? Let me know.


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