Ignorance and democracy don't make a good mix

The elected leaders who arguably have the greatest influence over the everyday lives of Connecticut residents - approving the state taxes they pay, the laws they must abide by, the regulations that businesses must adhere to, even the parameters that municipalities must operate within - seem to be the least known among voters.

I refer to our state senators and representatives. While I have no poll or study to point to, I can say with some assurance from years of talking politics with friends, neighbors and strangers - and often learning how frighteningly little people do know - that awareness of who represents them in the state Senate and House is near the bottom of the list.

Most people know who the president and governor are. Many can name the state's two U.S. senators, while fewer seem to be able to come up with the name of the congressman representing their district. Based on my unscientific observations, first selectmen and mayors come next in the pantheon of political recognition.

Then along come the state senators and House members.

Some of this stems from the way the news media covers politics. The president and governor are constantly appearing in TV news and in print. U.S. senators and congressmen come next in parceling out coverage. Those who still bother to read local news learn what their local leaders are up to.

But coverage of the state legislature often refers to what the Democrats or Republicans are proposing, rather than individual legislators. Unless they become enmeshed in some scandal, provide a key vote on a controversial piece of legislation, or have a leadership position in the legislature, Senate and House members get little or no coverage on TV news. And while quoted more frequently in state newspapers, they still operate in the shadow of the governor.

Adding to the confusion are strange, twisting districts, particularly for members of the House, which make it difficult for voters who do care to make a clear association between their community and their state representative. For example, as a result of redistricting the 139th District, where Republican Leon Moore is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Kevin Ryan, now twists from the northwestern quadrant of Montville, through all of Bozrah and into a jigsaw looking piece that splits through the center of Norwich.

After a recent debate, Moore told me how discouraging it was for him to learn how clueless and disinterested so many citizens are about their government. When greeting people in public, he finds many don't grasp what office it is he is running for and don't have much interest in finding out.

Long-standing service through frequent re-election can overcome this lack of awareness. By the time a senator or representative gets elected to a third, fourth or fifth term people actually begin to recognize who represents them. That is until the legislature again redistricts and voters find their street in a different district represented by someone they never heard of.

Nothing begets victory in these state House and Senate races like prior victories. These contests can often come down to name recognition. And the more a lawmaker wins and stays in office, the greater the name recognition. That doesn't seem to me the best way to select candidates.

The state's still new public financing law, which provides opposing candidates equal amounts of money to compete, provides the chance to close this name recognition gap, which makes it all the more remarkable and admirable that a group of incumbent lawmakers passed it. And occasionally incumbency becomes a liability when voters are so fed up they vote out whoever is in office.

In the end making the system work requires a bit of effort on the part of citizens. The Day has held a series of candidate forums to give the public the chance to question and hear from the candidates. There is a couple left, watch for the announcements. This newspaper will have stories about all the candidates. Take time to read them. An online voter guide will soon be offered on theday.com, providing more information. Check it out. Citizens can also find information on voting records on the state's website, www.ct.gov. Click on "legislative".

Bother to care.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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