In modern elections, cutting through the political noise can be tough. Candidates with deep pockets typically benefit from well-crafted statements, flashy campaign graphics and waves of TV ads to spin voters to their side.
Yet Seattle and King County may have found a way to reduce the political confusion, at least in part. The answer? Free unedited two-minute videos for all candidates, published online and broadcast on local television.
A joint project including government stations King County TV, the Seattle Channel, and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has produced a General Election Video Voters’ Guide to help local King County and Seattle residents have an unedited look at political candidates and legislative proponents. The nonpartisan video guide asks candidates and representatives of ballot measures to speak on the key planks of their political platform.
“The guide offers an unedited impression of the candidate,” said Lori Patrick, communications manager of the Seattle Channel. “The only restrictions are the candidates can’t use their time to criticize their opponent or display campaign literature or signs. We don’t edit or fact-check statements for accuracy, allowing campaigns to have unfiltered communication with voters.”
This more natural perspective of candidates opens the door to all of the human traits — positive and negative — candidates have. Patrick said that the overall goal of the video guide is to inspire greater voter engagement by offering a transparent look at the people on the ballot.
“People tell us they appreciate being able to hear from the candidates in a noncommercial, unmoderated and unedited environment,” Patrick said.
The videos are especially helpful considering Seattle’s and King County’s mail-only ballot system, a change that was made in 2009 as a way to bolster voter participation. Patrick said the guide is great for a quick reference, and is accessible wherever voters complete their mail-in ballots. The candidates and measures even appear on screen, broadcast or indexed online, in the same order as they do on the ballot for easy reference.
“Many people turn to the guide as they are completing their ballot,” Patrick said. “We also hear from viewers that they appreciate the indexed videos, a feature that allows them to click on a specific candidate, race or issue.”
Measuring the success of the program is primarily done through Web traffic and voter feedback. Both have been so positive, according to Patrick, that starting next year the program will be done annually versus every odd year when city council seats are up for election.
Though logic may suggest tying “success” of the video voter guide to voter turnout, this link is hard to prove due to the undulating popularity of elections in given years -- Patrick described ballot measures and races as having an unpredictable quality. Presidential election years can significantly boost voter turnout, and controversial ballot measures also tend to draw higher rates of participation. In contrast, fewer voters cast ballots when measures aren’t publicly engaging or candidate contests aren’t competitive.
Outside of a promotional tool, Patrick sees the video voters’ guide as another tool voters can use as a reference for informed decision-making.
“The video voters’ guide offers another vantage point for voters. It literally brings to life the candidates and the issues in a convenient format,” Patrick said.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.