Moving fast and breaking things works, up to a point.
Thanks to the smartphone, we could get by for months without having a real conversation with a living being. But would we want to? As president, Mary McAleese used to urge her guests to be curious – “nosy” – about the people sitting next to them because they included people they were unlikely to meet in their day-to-day lives.
Curiosity sparked by random encounters and sightings unmediated by a phone can only be a good thing. Observe what the smartphone has accomplished: people entirely detached from their surroundings, scrolling, scrolling ... no one looking outwards.
So, when someone recommends that we start pulling at threads in the rich tapestry of our electoral system by say, banning posters, they should have a care.
The following is from a Tidy Towns volunteer during the last push to ban election posters: “We feel that, in addition to the aesthetic and environmental considerations, the cost of any postering campaign needs to be considered in terms of value for money and effectiveness, given the alternative social media and other communication options that are available nowadays.”
Alternative social media. Other communication options. What might they convey to democracies desperately working to stay in advance of the lies and disinformation? Surely, they’re just another way of moving people deeper into their smartphone bunkers. We need no lessons on where that leads.
To that volunteer and to many disenchanted voters, posters and election leaflets are nothing more than unsightly litter and junk mail.
Where are our priorities in this scenario, though?
The poster issue is not the most important issue before the Election Commission (An Coimisiún Toghcháin) but it crops up every few years around election time and it’s hard to understand why.
The law is clear.
Election posters may only be erected after polling day has been fixed by ministerial order and for a maximum of 30 days before polling day. After polling day, they must be removed within 7 days. Any breach of these provisions may result in a €150 on-the-spot fine.
That’s a maximum of 37 days every three or four years. For just five weeks or so, they bring carnival, an element of madness and a serious message to every corner of the country. In 2014, posters of then Kerry County Council hopefuls Danny and Johnny Healy-Rae were mounted on Carrauntoohil in the McGillycuddy Reeks.
To some, the act amounted to blasphemy; to others, it was just helping to get the message out about a serious national exercise in a proudly stable democracy. There’s an election on, see these (very prettified) photographs of the candidates with their names, party, constituency and perhaps a slogan.
The former Labour minister, the late Niamh Bhreathnach, robustly defended the practice. You would be amazed, she wrote during a recent campaign, at the number of people who were still unaware of the pending election. “For those who have noticed, who the specific candidates are running in each constituency can remain a mystery. If advertising works so well for industrial and commercial interests, take it that advertising works for candidates too. The cheapest source of public notice is the basic poster.”
Nothing has changed. Posters represent one of the most transparent and cheapest ways for parties and individuals to get their presence in front of the electorate. They take the unfair advantage from incumbents. They give new candidates who can’t afford the leaflets a chance to raise their profile. They spark discussion in the local shop.
Yes, social media has an increasingly significant role in conveying political messages but it depends entirely on individuals clicking on the message, a solitary act by definition by people already in a social bubble. By contrast, a sea of posters impels people to look up and absorb information, familiarise themselves with candidates, even unwittingly, both as individuals and community.
Just over 20 years ago, my colleague on the opinion page very likely swayed an entire general election with a poster. The pictures of Michael McDowell up a ladder with the Progressive Democrats’ “Single Party Government – No Thanks” poster are a notable part of political history.
Part of the beauty of posters is their simplicity. Like our electoral system, they’re not just low-tech, they’re no tech at all. With the physical posters come the canvassers at the door, the voting card in the post, the well-thumbed voter register at the local voting centre where physical voters’ names are ticked off by a human possibly familiar to them, the stubby pencils for the voting, the familiar poster pictures reappearing as thumbnail reminders on the ballot paper, the physical count marathons, the exhausted workers thumbing through the votes ...
Some elements such as postal voting will have to change but it makes little sense to meddle with those that do the job simply, effectively, fairly and transparently.
As for environmental concerns, check out Copenhagen. Before the 2021 local elections, the city launched a pilot recycling scheme for posters made from polypropylene , co-ordinating key services to provide 27 containers for elections posters at nine different recycling stations. Around 31,000 posters were recycled into designer lamps. Wouldn’t you buy one of those?