Election lovers and haters: How they opt in, opt out of the political process

Lauren FitzPatrick

 Ellen Hamilton fancied herself an armchair political junkie since she was a little girl, writing letters and reading up on local issues with her mother.

And this campaign season, Hamilton, 36, couldn’t wait to jump straight into the presidential fray. She fired off nine questions to YouTube video debates, hoping to query stagefuls of hopefuls about their pork projects, their reading habits and how they’d help moms going back to work.

Technology permits the Sudbury, Mass., native and her three children to play politics with the candidates right from their Dartmouth home.

“There are fewer filters, and the process is getting more real,” Hamilton said. “More questions just force (candidates) to pay attention to details and to what the public’s actually thinking.”

But Hamilton means to be the one starting up the conversation.

“Robocalls -- I don't take seriously and are conceptually irksome,” she said. “ If I wasn't a true voter and on the fence about political involvement, they (especially if I got three or more) may make me grumble and stay at home on voting day.”

With the White House totally up for grabs and free of any presidential or vice presidential incumbents for the first time since 1952, election fans are popping up to showcase their views as never before.

Boosters already started their own MySpace.com, CafeMom.com and Meetup.com groups to stump for Mitt, Ron, Hillary and Chris. Impromptu T-shirt designers, such as The House Divided, run by a politically split couple, sell shirts reading “Barack, Paper, Scissors” on Web sites such as CafePress.com. And opinionated YouTubers abound, vying for eyeballs by using more and more creative stunts on the free video site.

But many – especially in early voting and battleground states -- wish they could wake up on Nov. 5, 2008, when the robocalls and commercials will end.

Jim Cook airs his progressive views through the mouth of his very own dog in a bit called My Talking Dog Political Minute. Such Web shorts, he said, only broaden democracy.

“Gosh, it’s been easier and easier for people who are interested in issues to find out about things and then to find each other and talk to each other (on the Web), and you couldn’t have even 10 years ago,” he said.

But even Cook, who has been informally blogging on Irregular Times since 1994 from his Columbus, Ohio, home, loathes the loss of privacy.

Cook has a problem with candidates who increasingly intrusively insert “themselves into our lives in ways that are not welcome,” Cook said. “If someone wants to visit my Web site, they have to choose to do that. If someone doesn’t want to watch my videos, they can choose not to do that.”

A National Political Do Not Call Registry started this fall by a politically interested former marketer seeks to save the sanctity of dinnertime when robocalls ring voters’ telephones.

Shaun Dakin, who runs the opt-out Web site, said he heard only anguish in voters’ voices when he called them on behalf of a 2006 congressional candidate he liked. Most didn’t realize political calls were exempted as free speech from the federal Do Not Call Registry, which has clocked some 150 million disgruntled customers.

Dakin won’t say how many have signed up for his list. He said he’ll support his organization, Citizens for Civil Discourse, by selling the list to campaigns as one of many databases they buy to target voters.

“What it tells me is that people don’t want people to call them at home,” Dakin said. “They want (campaign) people to leave them alone; they want to make their own decisions. We are intelligent citizens, and we make up our own minds, and robocalls ain’t gonna do it.

“Opting out of all this stuff is not opting out of the discourse and of politics and of engagement. It’s just opting out of one of so many channels.”

Opting out gets tougher in states with early primaries. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and Press:

-    Of likely voters in Iowa’s Democratic caucus, 65 percent got calls from a representative of one of the campaigns, and 33 percent were visited at home.

-    Of likely Republican voters, 46 percent were called, and 8 percent had doors knocked on.

“I think even people who are serious caucus-goers are now tired -- I’m tired,” said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. His state, the first to make a primary decision on Jan. 3, already has been hosting candidates for a year  -- and there’s nearly a year to go until the general election.

“We’ve now reached that point where people are just ready for it to happen.”

His expert solutions for escaping the din hardly require high-tech skills: “Keep your head down,” he said. “Don’t answer the phone. Don’t answer the door.”

Lauren FitzPatrick is national reporter for GateHouse News Service. Contact her at lfitzpatrick@gatehousemedia.com.

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BOX: OPT IN / OPT OUT

Opting in? Check out YouTube.com/YouChoose, peruse the shirts at www.cafepress.com/thehousedivided, join a group through www.MeetUp.com

Opting out of pesky robocalls? Register your phone number at the free site, blog.StopPoliticalCalls.org. Cell phone numbers welcome, too, since they’re totally fair game if used on voter registration or campaign donation forms.