Here is how the voting process should be. Well, at least in my mind, here is how I would like it to be:
1) about a week or two before the election I sit down and go online and print out the ballot for my division
2) For each race, I go the candidates website to read up on their history, philosophy, voting records, platform, etc. From here, I make a choice of which candidate I feel would be the best choice
3) I mark up my sample ballot
4) In the time before the election, I watch maybe a debate on tv or go to a public engagement for a candidate that I'm not totally sure of.
5) On election day, I take my ballot into the polling place and I make my choices
This is a perfect world and it works in so many ways. First off, I made no mention of TV ads or any ads for that matter. This is a good thing. For a given election voters are overwhelmed with ads for candidates that usually aren't even for races they can vote for. Of the ones that are relevant, 90% of them are negative. This turns off most voters right there. I can say (and I believe in exercising my right to vote) that I've considered skipping some elections as a protest against all the ads and noise I was hearing during the lead up. In my world, TV ads would not exist for candidates, it would be illegal. Same goes for radio and direct mail and phone calls.
Second, if all candidates had clear websites about their positions or there was a 3rd party site set up that would outline useful apples to apples comparison on candidates, people would immediately be able to form opinions on who they should vote for. I don't believe that most voters use the party affiliation as their only determining factor when voting. At most I believe they may use it as a guide. This is a good thing. Party animosity in this day and age really serves to alienate the voters from the process.
Third, once the voter is engaged in the process and knows all the relevant candidates they will feel compelled to learn more about the candidates they aren't sure of. That alone will be the catalyst for candidates to do meet and greets and for the media to sponsor debates. These connections to the people should be the result of voter demand, not staged to create voter interest.
So, were are the roadblocks to this perfect world of mine? Well, first off, there is no current way for me to know what my ballot is going to look like before I get to the voting machine. Sure there are attempts at this. I don't read the newspapers anymore but I remember that one day before the elections, they used to print a city wide ballot, that is at least close to what I'm asking for here. I don't know if this is the case anymore. Also, here in Philly there are 3rd party groups that strive to inform the voter. But all we need is for the election committees to post the ballots online once they have them worked out. Let the damn voters know who their choices are going to be. Sure this is easy in the big ticket races, but what about the committee people and delegates and other elected offices that receive little notice?
Second, we need to strive to eliminate (or cut down) advertising. Do you see doctors advertising on TV? Do you see cigarette ads in magazines? It is not unprecedented for the FCC or govt. to limit advertising and so it should be here. There should be a limited amount of equal free airtime given to major candidates for major races, but they should have to speak live to the camera with no voiceovers, etc. Let the candidate speak for themselves.
Third, the amount of info on candidates should be increased and standardized. This info should be put on the web so voters can compare candidates fairly.
These 3 ideas are simple and in the case of the ballots, are painless to implement. We as voters should push for them. We could see the election process become more of what it should be and less of what it shouldn't.