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Quite a Character 

Publisher's Note

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We seem to be stripping our language down to its basics in recent years — in texting, a single letter or numeral can stand in for a word; emotions are articulated via little smiley faces. Our communication is getting more brusque, too; anything can be said in 140 characters or less, according to the rules of the Twitterverse.

In our politics, it has become even more boiled down: A single letter can make or break a candidate, often regardless of any personal qualifications or ability. For example, the puzzling political careers of Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker and State Representative Matt Shea only have one explanation, and that is the little "R" that appears next to their name on the ballot whenever they stand for office.

It works both ways, too. In Arizona's heavily Hispanic and Democratic 7th Congressional District, perennial election loser Scott Fistler, a Republican, has decided to switch parties — not because he has changed his views, but because he wants to get that little "D" by his name on yard signs and the ballot. (Fistler took it a tad further, in fact, and also had his name legally changed to "Cesar Chavez.")

Have we become so lazy that our vote can be won by a single keystroke? For those few of us who actually bother to vote, that seems to be the case. (Voter turnout in Kootenai County for last month's primary election was an embarrassing 22 percent of registered voters.)

Here in Spokane County, Bonnie Mager registered to run for a county commissioner seat as an independent, even though she served her previous term as a Democrat. Perhaps that "I" will be enough to overcome Al French's "R." (There is a "D" in the race, too, smart justice advocate Mary Lou Johnson.)

Never mind that there are actual issues to debate, like growth and economic development; we'll all be watching to see if Mager is able to put the "I" in WIN. If so, could we see more candidates take that nonpartisan path? That, Mager told KPBX, is her intention — to curb the power of party affiliation and see the county commissioners become nonpartisan officials.

If voters refuse to learn about the people who want to lead us, we are complicit in the dumbing down of our democracy. Both political parties thrive on the power of the single letter — in many districts, kingmakers could successfully run a potted plant as long as it had the correct stamp of party approval. That gives the parties all the power, leaving less and less for the citizens. ♦

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