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Scholars: Gerstman Probe Should Cause Added Ballot Scrutiny

Monroe County Courthouse

Photo: WFIU News

Monroe County Auditor Amy Gerstman may face a special prosecutor for alleged financial misdeeds. Media and political thinkers say it's a prime example why voters should care about down-ticket races in November.

As Monroe County Auditor Amy Gerstman faces the possibility of being investigated by a special prosecutor for mismanagement of county funds, political and media experts say the situation is a good reminder that down-ticket races are important to learn about before heading to the polls.

Despite reports prior to the 2008 general election about the personal financial troubles Amy Gerstman had faced before running for auditor, she won more than 52 percent of the vote and thus the seat. Much of that may be attributable to the Democratic lean of the county – so much so that Democratic candidates for state school superintendent, attorney general and governor who all lost by significant margins statewide won the county.

So did voters just overlook the news of Gerstman’s troubles with money before going to the ballot box?

“News is sort of like broccoli. A lot of people know that they should see it, but they just don’t like it,” says Indiana University political science professor Marjorie Hershey, who says paying attention to down-ticket races may be too much for many voters.

“We haven’t been able to figure out how to make people more concerned about doing their homework and using that voting opportunity to really know whom they’re voting for.  Part of that may be that it’s just too much to expect people to be able to research the 70 or so offices that are typically on a local ballot,” Hershey says.

DePauw University communications professor Jeff McCall says some of the fault is the media’s too.

“I think a major problem is that the media world is just not well-positioned in this day and age to do a lot of coverage of down-ticket-type candidates. The television industry is too much caught up in showbiz and sensationalism. The newspaper industry has been challenged so much financially that they’ve had to cut back on staff so they just don’t have the resources,” he says.

But he says that’s not necessarily an excuse.

“News organizations at a certain point just need to muscle up. They are our surrogates. The First Amendment creates an important role for the news media and gives them a lot of freedom. When they serve a surrogate role for us, they really need to inform us about things we need to know about. And part of that job is to explain why that material is important.”

Even before the possibility of a special prosecutor was raised, Gerstman elected not to run for a second term in office.

McCall says it’s hard to convince voters to care about races which are not as high profile as those for president and congressional offices – unless the argument is phrased properly.

“If you go to an audience member and say ‘Do you care what happens at the city council,’ you know a lot of people are going to go ‘I don’t care.’  Or if you went and said ‘Do you care what happens at the county auditor’s office?’ a lot of people are going to say ‘I don’t care.”  But if you go to them and say ‘Do you mind that the taxpayer money that you’ve paid to the county has been wasted,’ they would care,” McCall says.

But even voters with backgrounds in government, such as Hershey, can find it hard to distinguish one down-ticket candidate from another.

“I remember voting for my insurance agent one year inadvertently because his name was familiar and I thought ‘Oh, he must have been recommended to me by somebody,’” she says.

Hershey adds the sheer number of races may play a role in voter confusion.

“What we’ve done over the years is to increase the opportunities for voters to choose the people who make the decisions that affect their lives – to a degree, I suspect, known nowhere else in the world. We have what’s called a long ballot – a huge number of choices that voters get to make. But we haven’t been able to mandate greater interest in politics.”

She says the framers of the Constitution may not have anticipated the electorate voting for such offices as auditor, surveyor and coroner, pointing out that the only officials directly elected by the people at the founding of the nation were members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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