More Challenges to Informing Voters Online: Lessons Learned by Tracy Westen

[After posting our blog on ‘A Dirty Dozen Reasons ..’, Tracy Westen followed up with an email detailing additional challenges learned during the 1990s when he worked through the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles to improve voter information. His note was so informative, and useful, that I have posted it here with his permission.)

Tracy Westen:

“I’ve been thinking about other deterrents to Internet debates that we did not cover, partly because I didn’t think they applied to Presidential candidates, but upon reflection they might.

You’ll recall that I was involved in developing formats for cities that wanted to use video to present their local candidates. We were able to get LA to enact this approach into its ordinances, and every election, all candidates for city office get a chance to videotape a short presentation on why they should be elected. These are available on the City’s municipal access channel and website. It’s now been running for perhaps 8 years or so. We also worked with Santa Monica to do it, and they’ve experimented with a number of formats: videotaped presentations, short debates, rebuttals, Q&A videotaped from an audience, so the user could click a question and see any answer, etc. New York hired us as consultants for two election cycles and gave all their local candidates — close to 200 — a chance to come to a studio, with professional lighting, makeup and a teleprompter, and video two versions of a statement of up to two minutes, and then pick the one they wanted to be used. They were broadcast on the city’s TV channel and I believe, but am not sure, were available on the city’s website. We also persuaded Time Warner to do the same thing one year on its Channel One, a dedicated NY news channel for cable, and in 1996 we developed the nation’s first digital, interactive, on-demand presentation of Presidential candidates for cable TV on Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida.

What did we learn? Several things:

Format

In these early trials, my first suggestion was to require candidates to video tape at least two minutes! My idea was that they would have to get substantive to fill the time, instead of just using platitudes. To my dismay, I discovered that many candidates couldn’t fill two minutes: they typically didn’t have enough to say and ran out of ideas. Depressing! In addition, I found that viewers didn’t want to sit through two minutes — it’s actually very long, when you look at current TV editing techniques. So we had to drop that requirement and say “up to 2 minutes.” Almost no one ever taped anything that long. Saddening!

Lack of Experience

Local candidates (for city council, etc.) usually had little or no experience with TV. Their videotaped statements were, often, not very good: they read mechanically, didn’t express much feeling, and droned on.

Lack of Familiarity with TV Production

Our first trials with the City of LA offered candidates a chance to videotape their own statements and bring them to the City for airing on the city’s cable TV channel. We thought they would jump at the chance. At first, nothing happened: no one participated. So I arranged to have Time Warner Cable in West LA offer them a fully staffed studio, with makeup and camera operators, and all they had to do was call up, book an appointment, show up, and have the statements prepared for them. Only about 50% of the candidates participated — still that showed us that you have to offer them full service production, because none of them knew how to get a short video produced. We also did the same thing with presidential candidates in 1996: we offered them the opportunity to send us short video statements on 5 issues, and said we’d put them on Time Warner’s Full Service Network (the first interactive digital system) in Orlando, Fla. We only got a few responses and then had to hire camera crews to go to the candidates and get them to prepare statements: only a few did that.

Our lesson: at least in the early days, when streaming wasn’t any good, when YouTube didn’t exist, and candidates, especially at the lower levels, weren’t used to TV, we had to do everything for them. That’s probably still the case with lower races — city candidates through many state legislative races. I suppose, also, candidates didn’t see the benefits, since Internet traffic was so limited at that time. At the Presidential level, however, my assumption has been that the candidates are comfortable with TV and know how to produce short spot announcements. Still, while they may be willing to produce TV commercials (typically, they don’t contain the candidates except for a voice over at the end to qualify for lowest unit rate), they may not spend much time actually taping appearances in those ads – often they’re narrated by a third person and either attack their opponents or tout their records, without much candidate video. So, in short: Many candidates may not be comfortable with TV, or with the short video statement, and may not have easy access to recording facilities — so we’ve found we have to make arrangements for them (actually, like a debate, where all the candidate has to do is show up).

Teleprompter

At first, we tried to get spontaneity. We asked them questions and taped their answers for their statements. But some fumbled around and didn’t have very clear answers. And were nervous. So we used a teleprompter, and that seemed to work much better — but many, most, had never used one, so they looked a bit awkward: their eyes moved around, etc. Still, that was better.

Comfort with a Debate Format

Presidential candidates are generally used to sound bites and TV interviews and have the know-how to handle themselves in that format. Yes, they have to “practice” and “train” before a debate, but that’s a back-and-forth discussion, with a camera, and experts coaching them. Then all they have to do is show up and “perform.” Telling them they have to prepare, say, 5 to 10 video statements, then rebuttal video statements, then answers to voter questions also on video, over a period of time, perhaps months — that may be logistically more difficult for them.

One of my early ideas was that candidates would just sit down in front of a computer with a camera in the monitor, read a few voter questions, videotape a few quick answers, and transmit them into a central website, where they would be inserted in the right place. Probably naive – many didn’t have that capability, at least in the 1990s, and their campaign managers might not want such off-the-cuff statements inserted into the video stream. So there are logistical problems that may deter candidates from participating, including lack of familiarity with the format, lack of experience in making the videos interesting, and probably resistance from campaign managers who want to control everything but don’t have the time to spend doing it and not seeing the payoff.

I once had a very experienced campaign manager say to me, about Project VoteSmart — which sends a questionnaire around to all federal candidates, asks them to answer the questions [developed by reporters and polling], and posts them on the web — that the first thing he tells his candidates when they get the VoteSmart questions is to “throw them away.” He said his candidates gain nothing from answering specific issue questions: they only risk losing voters. Rather, he wants to control the message on themes his polling shows work best for that candidate. Project Vote Smart periodically ran into trouble because only small percentages of candidates bothered to answer their questions and get the free postings on the website.

More Experience but Challenges Remain

There’s more — I helped write a book, “Video Voter,” on this subject*, with recommendations to cities and others wanting to build voter information websites — but it was pretty upbeat and didn’t go into all the negatives. We’d need to think this through, in light of todays’ candidates’ experience with and access to video, to design a contemporary format.

Finally, as I think you know, I concluded several years ago that, rather than try to persuade the networks to develop websites like the Democracy Network (DNet) for candidate debates, I’d try to persuade Secretary of State websites to do it. I co-authored a book for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), “Voter Info in Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” in which we started by grading all 51 state (and DC) election websites on their presentation of substantive voter information. We developed a list of about 30 criteria and examined every website. We also made suggestions for what Secretaries of State should do to improve their websites and adopt contemporary web techniques, with an emphasis on video. This is worth thinking about, since (a) the networks probably won’t see any profit in what we’re proposing, and (b) Secretaries of State already have websites they can adapt, and doing so wouldn’t be that expensive. I have encountered problems with this, however, and can go into them separately. (I also put together a funding proposal for a foundation to fund our working with 3 test states to get them to upgrade their voter information websites but the foundation didn’t accept the proposal.)

Conclusion

So, at least two options: Persuade the news media or other Internet sites (Facebook, Google, others?) to develop online candidate debates (I tried to persuade TiVo to do it, and suggested the name “TiVoter” for them, but they didn’t adopt it), or persuade Secretaries of State to modernize their sites and offer many of the features we’ve proposed. Perhaps there are more. Apple, with it’s new Apple TV coming out in the fall?”

Tracy Westen
Tracy Westen

Tracy Westen

Dallas, Texas

From email to Bill Dutton

Notes

Voter Info in Digital Age

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