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Finally, A Data Program for the People

Remember the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2005 and all the photos of citizens proudly thrusting forth indigo ink-stained fingers marking them as participants in the democratic process? Eighty percent of eligible voters turned out for that election, despite the fact that justified fears abounded over being blown to pieces by lining up outside polling venues. Without question, Iraqis had compelling reasons to cast their votes.

But that’s not the case here in the cradle of democracy. With the midterm elections a mere two weeks away, and Democratic candidates (who always do better with a bigger turnout) on the verge of losing control of the Senate, only about a third of franchised Americans will bother to line up at the local school polling station. Even though they can play video poker or tweet selfies of themselves waiting on line in their old cafeteria, at least 60% of them are expected to take a pass. While more than half of voters typically show up for presidential elections, midterms seem to just bore us. The last two drew 38.4% and 37.3% of registered voters, respectively.

Unlike the Iraqis, many Americans seem to think that there’s not a compelling reason to cast their ballots. But while it’s too late for this election cycle here in the U.S., a new website started in the UK is hoping to change that sentiment with a grassroots effort to make politician’s speeches less boring. Pollifiller.com invites people to elect worn-out stump speech phrases to a “Hall of Shame” to influence candidates to program the list into their speechwriters’ computers and excise them from future drafts. Amazingly, the clichés are nearly interchangeable both here and across the pond. Leading Hall of Shamers include: “We hear you”; “difficult choices”; “zero tolerance”; “there are no easy answers”; “the previous administration”; “tough on crime”; “build a better future”; and the always cringe-inducing “let me be absolutely open and honest.”

Personally, I have a bias against candidates who talk about hope. We give a pass to Bill Clinton, who was from Hope, AR, but it’s not a word that stirs confidence in voters. At a recent rally with Sen. Barbara Boxer in San Francisco, President Obama said that “the thing I need right now is votes,” and that “my hope has not wavered.” That’s to say nothing of the hopes of Democratic Senate candidates who are running from the President like he’s a guy with a fever and the sniffles who just got off a plane from Liberia. When Barack said the other day that the candidates shunning him “are all folks who vote with me,” pundits said he’d virtually handed three Senate seats to the GOP.

Jobs are always a good thing to talk about to local crowds on the stump, as Alaska Sen. Mark Begich did a few weeks ago when he told voters in the Kenai Peninsula that his appointment to the Appropriations committee was a “powerful opportunity” and that “it means jobs in the community.” Begich got right down to brass tacks: If you vote for a new guy, it’ll take him 10 years to get this kind of clout. Playing the job card is effective, but does it carry enough momentum to rally a bored electorate to the polls?

Polifiller is asking folks to enter hackneyed political phrases into their database in an ongoing (but, sadly, hopeless) censure of idiotic political discourse. If speechwriters installed the filter, they’d be forced to elicit original thoughts from their candidates on a regular basis. Impossible. I can only offer up what I’d like to see more of in political campaigns: something high-concept that will play in a YouTube age, something like the bit that played out at a Kentucky barbecue featuring 70-something Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his young and attractive challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. “What a huge crowd for Senator McConnell’s retirement party,” Lundergran said to the 5,000 folks in attendance. “Thirty-five is my age, and that is also Mitch McConnell’s approval rating.”

Ba-dump-bump. When in doubt, do shtick. Political handicappers call the Kentucky race a toss-up.

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