Most of us are guilty of it at some time or another.

Caught up in discussions of the minutiae of presidential candidate?s health care plans, we go to the polls thinking we are informed, only to open the ballot to discover we have a district judge and a school board member to elect. We?re left with either voting for the guy we saw on cable access once, the one with the cool middle initial or, slightly less dishonorably, leaving it blank.

For most Madison students, there was mercifully only one line to mark on the ballot Tuesday. But those who continually shrug their shoulders at local politics should heed the lesson of Milwaukee?s 6th District.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, incumbent Ald. Michael McGee Jr. won 32 percent of the primary vote there Tuesday ? from inside a jail cell.

Mr. McGee is currently being held on charges of bribery, extortion, election fraud and leading a conspiracy to assault a man who did not support him in a recall election. While he has not been tried on any of these charges, Mr. McGee?s prior record isn?t exactly squeaky clean.

A woman with whom Mr. McGee had an extramarital affair filed a restraining order against him, alleging he abused her while she was pregnant with his child. She later received an e-mail with the loving sentiment, ?Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Today is a great day and I miss you! Too bad but not too sad that you are carrying that McGee Seed.?

Of course, Mr. McGee has won a contingent of fierce support through his father, a former Milwaukee alder, and his attacks on the Milwaukee police for alleged abuses, especially in his own run-ins with the law.

It would be easy to write off Mr. McGee?s continued popularity as simply a referendum against what many residents believe is a corrupt and racist police department. But this would ignore the simple power of name recognition on a ballot. Voters will choose the candidate they?ve heard of, no matter in what context, rather than choose someone they would have to admit they know nothing about.

The 2003 recall of former California Gov. Gray Davis showed this phenomenon clearly, when 50-odd no-name candidates were doomed beneath the visage of the Terminator. Did anyone seriously consider Arnold Schwarzenegger the most qualified person to govern a state? Of course not, but that was clearly not the question voters asked themselves when they put Mr. Schwarzenegger in office.

There?s no such thing as bad publicity, at least when your competition has none at all ? just look at state Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler, who defeated Linda Clifford by more than 15 percentage points in last year?s election despite widely publicized charges of misconduct in presiding over a case involving a family business.

Without this kind of media attention, voters are unlikely to follow a low-profile state or local election at all, and they exhibit a refusal to admit they are ill-informed on the race. A poll conducted last week by WISC-TV showed more than half of state voters who claim to recognize the names of the current Supreme Court candidates, Louis Butler and Michael Gableman, have no opinion on either. But only a third said they were undecided, when asked how they would vote if the election was held today.

Of course, the public is not completely to blame for ignorance of elections that don?t involve the president. While only some Madison districts had local officials on the ballot, media coverage of the candidates? issue positions was limited to a Wisconsin State Journal article the day of the election and a supplement by the League of Women Voters in the Isthmus. This seems strange to me, given some of the colorful characters who ran for office.

In the Dane County Board of Supervisors races, District 1 saw the candidacy of Dennis DeNure, who has suggested Madison build a ?National Onion Museum? downtown, and infamous former mayoral candidate Will Sandstrom made a bid in District 12. Any political field that contains these two could never be called boring.

Those races may be over, but our next election date is right around the corner, and this time many students will be choosing a county board representative. Wyndham Manning and Conor O? Hagan aren?t under any criminal investigations, but what do you know about them besides that? Answer that before April 1, and Madison can rest easy on election night.

Tim Williams ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in English.