Despite a sorry track record when it comes to voter turnout in government elections, Americans have become positively wild about other types of voting. Hundreds of polls are conducted every day on topics ranging from how to wage the Iraq war to whether Barry Bonds's record-breaking home run ball should be launched into outer space.
Recently, NBC's "Today" show devoted an entire week to electing "America's Best Sandwich." The candidates, each of which received plenty of free airtime, were: the muffuletta, from New Orleans; Katz's pastrami, from New York's landmark deli; the Philly cheesesteak; Sam's lobster roll, from Central California; and Frenchy's triple-decker, from Chicago. Remarkably, after watching close-ups of the "Today" hosts wolfing down these sandwiches for five straight days, tens of thousands of Americans felt qualified to vote without ever having tasted a morsel themselves. They elected the cheesesteak.
Meanwhile, more than 50,000 people were weighing in on CNN.com's question: "Are you powerless against snacks?" On the same page, CNN sought yea or nay votes on whether Britney Spears’ behavior constituted "sabotaging herself." (Over 20,000 people voted yea.) AOL, in its own burst of democracy, invited click-happy subscribers to vote on the controversial question: "Do you like red lipstick?"
To some extent the deluge of daily voting is merely an inexpensive use of technology to fill overabundant media time. It is apparent that a segment of the public enjoys having its opinions collected and then regurgitated as a form of rapid, if unscientific, "news."
Yet America's fascination with voting does not seem to translate into increased participation in government elections.
Turnout in presidential elections has held steady at roughly 50 percent of the voting-age population for the past 75 years. The United States placed 139th among 172 nations whose voting records were measured by Sweden's International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Italy ranked highest, with voter turnout exceeding 92 percent.
Clearly there is a difference between electing a president and voting, as MSNBC viewers once did, on the question, "Should Michael Jackson's kids be taken away from him?" Or casting a ballot in the infamous Fox News poll, "Would you personally kill Osama bin Laden?"
Expert pollsters -- from the Gallup Organization to those who regularly conduct the Washington Post-ABC News poll -- point out that most quickie Internet voting is unscientific and unreliable. But that doesn't seem to stop the major networks from spewing forth a daily dose of polling. The inevitable result is a trivialization of all elections.
Of greater concern is that many polls, reckless by virtue of asking questions that cannot be reasonably answered, create a public record that, even if proved wrong, affects public perception. For example, many news organizations rushed to ask, "Do you think O.J. Simpson is guilty?" after his recent arrest in Las Vegas. One such poll, in the Albuquerque Tribune, not surprisingly found that a majority believed Simpson was guilty. More troubling was that only 4 percent of respondents took advantage of the option to answer "I'm not sure," even though the charges had not been formally outlined, let alone tested in court.
CourtTV regularly fuels this type of rush to judgment with its "13th Juror" poll. A recent entry asked, "Is Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS justified?" It is, of course, highly unlikely that many voters had read Rather's 30-page complaint against his former employer.
The most robust example of a nation eager to be counted is provided by the television series "American Idol,” which last season claimed to have registered some 580 million votes (multiple votes allowed) by phone and text message to elect a winning performer. In contrast, about 122 million votes were cast in the 2004 presidential election. It's clear why marketers and politicians are examining new polling options.
By 2012 or 2016 there could be a serious movement to have voting in presidential elections conducted via the Internet. This will raise questions about the nature of democracy. On the one hand, Americans have a constitutional right to vote, and the specter of citizens standing for hours in the rain or being harassed at the polls understandably prompts efforts to find more user-friendly voting methods. On the other hand, the electoral process benefits from some degree of effort by voters -- whether that involves taking time to study the issues or hiking to a polling place.
So, is the torrent of polling in America (a) evidence of a more involved citizenry, (b) a glimpse at the future of U.S. politics or (c) proof that Americans, with enough mouse clicks, might someday put a cheesesteak sandwich in the White House?
© Peter Funt. This article first appeared in The Washington Post.