Stan Voit: Polls show one thing, politicians do quite another

Apr. 08, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

How is an elected official supposed to know what the public wants him to do? Better yet, should his decisions as an elected official be based just on consensus from his constituents, or on his own sense of right and wrong?

I ask these questions because of the nature of polling and what it means, or doesn’t mean, in today’s political climate. Too many politicians, especially at the state and national level, seem to make decisions more out of what moneyed supporters or lobbyists want them to do instead of what should be done and what the people want them to do.

For example, Tennesseans who want wine sold in grocery and convenience stores outnumber those opposed by more than 2 to 1, a Middle Tennessee State University Poll announced a few weeks ago shows. That’s about the same result as earlier polls, MTSU says.

When asked “… do you favor or oppose letting grocery, convenience and other stores that sell food in Tennessee sell wine if they are located in places that allow the sale of alcoholic beverages?”, 65 percent of Tennesseans — that’s two out of three — say that they are in favor. Just one in five is opposed; the rest say they don’t know or refuse to answer.

That’s a pretty convincing number. Yet you’d think lawmakers were being asked to sacrifice their first-born children, judging how hard it has been to get this measure through and into law. Even a bill that would require a referendum in cities that allow package stores hasn’t been passed; it remains hung up in committee.

If people across this state support wine sales in grocery stores by this hefty a margin, why haven’t more legislators signed on? It’s because of the influence of lobbyists on behalf of package liquor stores — the people likely to be hurt by wine sales in grocery stores. They have made a more convincing argument to enough legislators to block the bill every year it has come up.

Let’s look at the issue of background checks for all sales of guns.

According to a Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday, 91 percent of voters across the country support universal background checks. A Morning Joe/Marist poll released Tuesday indicated 87 percent support for such checks. That’s pretty overwhelming support for requiring a background check before you can buy a gun, whether in a store or at a gun show.

People see this as a common-sense approach to gun control. And in case you think this is a Democratic-Republican divide, think again. The new survey, as with the past polls, shows no partisan divide, with 96 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of independent voters, and 88 percent of Republicans saying they favor requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Eighty-eight percent of voters in homes with guns say they support the checks.

Yet Congress shows so sign of approving such a law. The influence of the National Rifle Association is too strong, it appears. That’s despite the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre testifying before Congress 14 years ago in favor of background checks.

On May 27, 1999, LaPierre testified before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime. The Columbine High School shooting had happened a month earlier.

“We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone,” he said. “That means closing the Hinckley loophole so the records of those adjudicated mentally ill are in the system. This isn’t new, or a change of position, or a concession. I’ve been on record on this point consistently, from our national meeting in Denver, to paid national ads and position papers, to news interviews and press appearances.”

Something happened. NRA now opposes universal background checks. And if NRA opposes them, chances are they won’t become law. This despite polls showing overwhelming support for them.

Politicians should not look only at polling data before casting votes. But they should not ignore clear public sentiment on issues before them. People in Tennessee want to be able to buy wine in grocery stores. People in America want universal background checks before you can buy a gun. Those are irrefutable facts. And, I might add, two very reasonable, rational positions.

When will those we elect start doing what so many people want them to do?

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.