The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Alliance Executive Director Craig Benjamin.
Blockin’ out the real issues, distractin’ my mind…
They’re back. At every major intersection. On fences across the valley. In front yards throughout town. And in every nook and cranny in-between.
It’s that time of year: election time! Which means one thing here in Jackson Hole: political signs, everywhere.
You’re probably wondering why; why on earth do we have to suffer through sign season? Why do so many local candidates for elected office seem obsessed with placing signs everywhere they can?
I get it. We all want to show our support for our chosen candidates, it’s our right as Americans to do so, and signs are a fun and easy way to express this support. There’s nothing inherently wrong with political signs.
Except, extensive research from across America shows signs have almost zero impact on how people vote, with even the most extensive sign-placement strategies having positive effects of one or two percentage points, at most. More importantly for those of us that care about the future of our community, outside of building name recognition, political signs don’t tell you anything about a candidate and his or her vision for the future. Nothing. At. All.
Why does this matter? Well, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.”
This means we must do more to fulfill our American responsibility to participate in our representative democracy than simply vote, which is necessary, but not sufficient.
It means that if we care about the future of our community, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about how candidates for local elected office plan to address the big challenges we face, and their respective visions for the future of our community. And it means we as citizens have a responsibility to hold our elected representatives accountable for making decisions in the best long-term interest of our community.
Look, local elected representatives literally shape the future of Jackson Hole. They decide how we address the housing emergency that’s destroying our middle class and threatening the fabric of our community; the traffic congestion tearing into our quality of life; the nearly 400 animals struck and killed on our roads every year; and how we will, as our Comprehensive Plan begins, “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
Signs don’t tell you anything about any of this. They don’t tell you how a candidate would deal with a development proposal that doesn’t align with the comp plan or our land use rules. Or how they feel about the ongoing region-wide effort to transfer control of our federal public lands to the states. Or what steps they believe our community should take to engage underrepresented communities in our civic affairs and decision making. Or what they plan to do about the dozens of other important issues facing our community. No, signs don’t tell you anything at all.
So what really tells you something about a candidate and their vision for the future? Two things: Their words and their actions.
Let’s start with their words. This may be so obvious it’s not worth saying, but let’s do it anyways. The best way to know how someone feels about an issue is to ask him or her directly.
This is why the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance asked candidates for local elected office their views on a range of important community issues for all to read (available at JHAlliance.org/2016questions) and why The Planet will grill each candidate on a number of issues in its Primary Election issue on stands August 10.
This is why organizations like the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, Rotary, and others host candidate forums where you can learn about candidates’ respective visions for the future of our community. And this is why it’s so important that if you feel strongly about any particular issue, you ask candidates about it so the issue becomes part of the political conversation.
By educating ourselves on candidates’ respective plans for the future of our community, we become those indispensible enlightened citizens Thomas Jefferson mentioned, and take an important first step toward the creation of a well-functioning local republic. We also help our candidates become better representatives of our interests by ensuring they are prepared to deal with the issues we care about when they enter elected office—because they have already thought them through.
Here’s the thing, what candidates say is important. But we all know that actions speak louder than words. It’s what our elected representatives actually do regarding the issues we care about once they’re in office that really matters.
This is why the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance will release a voter’s guide this fall that will provide you with both candidates’ unedited views regarding a range of important issues facing our community. It will also contain information on how encumbents voted on these issues.
By educating ourselves on how our elected representatives responded to the issues we care about, we can take the critical second step toward the creation of a well-functioning local republic, because we’ll have the ability to exercise oversight.
So this election season, please look beyond the signs that tell you nothing at all. Please do more to fulfill your American responsibility than simply voting in local elections. Please take a few minutes to educate yourself about both the words and actions of candidates for local elected office, and then vote. The future of our community depends on it.