By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
WHAT DO YOU think of the results of the latest Winthrop/ETV poll of South Carolinians, released late last week?
Here’s what I think: Thank goodness the founders of this country bequeathed us a republic rather than a system of direct democracy, and those who devised our state system sorta, kinda went along with that.
You say that’s not what you thought? Well, let’s look back at a couple of the poll’s findings:
- Almost three-fourths of respondents approve of raising the state’s tax on cigarettes. Given a choice between using the proceeds to pay for health care for the poor or the governor’s proposal to reduce income taxes, five times as many chose paying for Medicaid.
- Asked whether the governor should be allowed to appoint executive agency heads who are now popularly elected, three-fourths said no, they’d rather keep electing them.
I look at that first result and hail the wisdom of the electorate. Numbers like that tempt me to run around the State House and wave them at all those finger-in-the-wind lawmakers, to get them to get off their duffs and raise our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.
But then I look at the second result, and I want to warn lawmakers not to govern by poll. Sound hypocritical? Let me see if I can explain my way out of this.
Poll after poll, year after year, South Carolinians say they want the cigarette tax raised. This is useful to know, because lawmakers keep trying to excuse their inaction on the tax by saying voters don’t like tax increases. These polls indicate that voters do want this tax increased.
But that’s not why it should be increased. It should be increased because it’s been thoroughly demonstrated that every dime by which we increase the cost of buying a pack of cigarettes decreases the number of kids who get hooked on tobacco. If you want to use the proceeds to pay for Medicaid, great. But that’s not the point. The point is pricing cigarettes beyond the reach of adolescents.
Any lawmaker who does not know that about the cigarette tax is one who has not been paying attention to the debate at the State House. And a lawmaker who doesn’t pay attention to the debate is one who isn’t doing his or her job.
You don’t raise a tax because you get a thumbs-up from a poll. You raise it, or lower it, or do something else, or do nothing, because you’ve done the due diligence necessary to draw intelligent conclusions about the likely consequences of such action. And that is your job as an elected representative.
In a small group — say, small enough to fit in one of those iconic New England town halls that express the ideal of direct democracy — it’s at least theoretically possible to examine an issue thoroughly. People on various sides of an issue can challenge each other with questions; those who know more about a specific issue can share their knowledge with those who know less; and all of that can take place before a vote on what to do.
Polls don’t do that. Polls derive overly simplistic conclusions from the gut, off-the-top-of-the-head reactions of folks who didn’t get a chance to study before the test. They provide useful information, but are a lousy way to make decisions.
This is true even when those crafting the poll try to maximize the respondent’s preparation with questions that sound halfway like lectures. That was the case with this poll. Consider the way the constitutional-officers question was asked: “In South Carolina, we have several statewide elected offices. These include the Secretary of State, Superintendent of Education, Comptroller General, Commissioner of Agriculture, and others. Some people believe that it would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government if some of these positions were appointed by the governor, while others feel that they should continue to be elected and remain directly accountable to the voters. Which of these comes closer to your opinion?” The respondent then gets a choice between “Appointed by governor” and “Continue to be elected.”
I’m not a bit surprised that three-fourths of respondents answered “continued to be elected” after all that — especially after they had just been told that was the way to keep those officials “directly accountable to the voters.”
But I firmly believe that if you gave me five minutes with each of those folks, the result would be different.
First, I’d ask the respondent to name each of those elected officials. Most would know who the governor is, almost none would know all of them. Then I’d ask, how do you hold someone accountable if you don’t even know that person’s name?
I’d talk about the two current officers who had to be appointed because the ones who were elected ran afoul of the law. I’d ask whether they thought the governor — the official they know — should be held accountable for running the government day to day. Then I’d ask how they think he’s going to do that when most of the government doesn’t answer to him.
I believe most folks would change their minds. I believe that because I trust the voters.
You see, I don’t oppose government by plebiscite because I think the people are less intelligent than politicians. I know too many politicians to think that. I oppose it because it’s not the best process. If you take poll respondents and put them in a situation in which they could thoroughly study and debate an issue before voting on it, their decisions would be far better than those they’d make on the spur of the moment.
Sometimes, this process even works with politicians. But not when they spend all their time looking at polls.