The statewide primary campaign season generated several trends that we found to be areas for concern.
While we were grateful for the efforts made toward engaging Vermonters at multiple levels, campaigns and organizers for public forums and debates clearly were sometimes unprepared — at least technologically — for the unexpected.
In a few notable cases, online hecklers disrupted virtual events, often derailing discussions or interjecting themselves inappropriately with opinions, cursing or rude comments. One forum in Washington County was bombed by a hacker who, during the discussion, was able to post a graphic video of pornography. Ultimately, the recording of the event needed to be edited in order for the various candidates taking part in the forum to share the link. It was a very unfortunate prank — one that we chose not to publicize so as not to draw unwarranted attention to the graphic material and keep the focus on the candidates and the issues.
In both cases discussed above, we opted to censor the heckling and pranking, and some individuals in the community (and participants in the events themselves) were critical of our decision to leave that information out of our coverage. “It was not an accurate representation of the event,” one person wrote to us. “Everyone needs to know when these kinds of things happen.”
In the early days of virtual proceedings at the Legislature, committee meetings occasionally were bombed with pornography. The tech crew overseeing State House work reconfigured the virtual proceedings so that the public could no longer actively participate in deliberations or discussions unless they were invited to speak. Otherwise, the public could only observe.
Those are the kinds of safeguards the public should have prior to the next election cycle (which is starting in earnest before the Nov. 8 general election). We all need assurances that we are not going to be subjected to discussions and material that could be graphic or offensive in nature. We hope campaigns and organizers will take the proper steps moving forward.
We also were surprised to learn that a handful of candidates who appeared on the Democratic or Republican ballots for the open primary also had signed up to be a candidate as an independent — all but assuring they would appear on the general election ballot in November. That had us (and a few municipal clerks) running to state statutes to determine whether such a shrewd move was valid. It is, but it strikes us as a tricky maneuver that needs attention moving forward. Otherwise, why doesn’t every individual running in the open primary also get on the ballot as an independent? That would, of course, negate the need for a primary altogether.
We hope lawmakers will re-examine the criteria for when Vermonters can join a general election race. Our suspicion is that there are voters who would have wanted to know prior to Tuesday’s voting to understand the motivations behind why candidates felt it was OK to leapfrog the democratic process. In the spirit of fair elections, this loophole feels deceptive.
Lastly, we noticed a trend that affected us personally: Candidates are no longer relying on print newspapers for political advertising. We don’t mind that individuals seeking elected office use a range of media — TV, radio and print — to get their message out there. But this was the first Vermont election where newspapers around the state felt left out of the democratic process (and political advertising gravy train) for direct mail pieces, advertisements and pushes on Facebook and other social media, as well as on Front Porch Forum.
Campaigns have always wanted to maximize audience for the least amount of money possible, and using the internet is definitely one way to go. Obviously, newspapers feel that pinch. But campaigns seem to forget that most of the individuals who subscribe to newspapers are engaged readers — many of them representative of demographics that do not rely on screens and mobile devices. In short, newspaper readers tend to be informed citizens who have deep concern for their community. And they are paying to read newspaper content — they are willing participants. And they are looking — whether it is through our coverage or the ads that we publish — for the ways candidates can differentiate themselves. That is especially important during the primary, where candidates within a party often wear the same stripes, so to speak.
We certainly are not advocating for elections to “be conducted the way they always have been.” But we do feel that as progress is made — be it online events, or reaching out to the electorate in effective ways, that everyone be thinking about the potential impacts in order to keep elections comprehensive, fair and free from influences — many of which seem to go unchecked these days.