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This Side of Democracy
Posted on Aug 30, 2010
Moreover, campaign finance regulations are not cut-and-dry protective measures that always benefit the little guy, such as consumer protection rules or FDA standards. They can often work against those they are meant to serve. The greater the complexity in campaign finance statutes, the harder it is for Average Joe to navigate the system. The unintended consequence is empowerment of the moneyed few that can still afford the big-time D.C. pettifogger who knows the ropes.
The current, renewed stalemate—especially in the aftermath of Citizens United where legislative efforts to brunt that decision’s blow have fallen far short—is quite familiar. The Roberts Court is making it abundantly clear that free speech trumps all else in its rulings. According to Richard Briffault, Columbia Law School’s Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation and a noted authority on the Court’s history of campaign finance rulings, the Court has, “abandoned [the] view that in campaign finance cases the Court should reconcile and balance free speech values with other concerns like political integrity, the promotion of democracy, and respect for Congress’s efforts to balance these goals. Instead, Roberts’s opinion framed the case entirely from a First Amendment perspective. It was not about the rules governing the corporate role in financing elections but simply ‘about political speech.’”
Thus, for the time being, there is a pragmatic argument for abandoning attempts to reinstate restrictive measures on political speech, regardless of whether one speaks from his mouth or from his wallet. In the absence of a Constitutional amendment, the effort to stymie the flow of certain monies into elections and politics is simply futile. But neither can the status quo stand. The Constitutional liberties of the many should not suffer a de facto depression in value because of political access granted to the wealthy few.
One answer, growing in popularity, is to approach the problem from the opposite end. A semblance of balance can be realized by activating small donors; or, as the Campaign Finance Institute’s Michael Malbin, a leading voice for small donor encouragement, says, “what is needed probably has less to do with squeezing down the top than building up the bottom.” According to his organization, if a mere 10 percent of voters give $75 to a campaign, it would total to $1.65 billion, almost 40 percent of the total expense for all federal elections (using 2004 figures).
There are a number of simple tricks to achieve this, some of which are already being experimented with by a few States—such as Ohio, Arizona, and Minnesota—but which deserve far more attention at the federal level and on state ballot initiatives.
One is multiplicative matching that applies only to small donations. If you give $100, the state will throw in $500; but if you’re giving in the thousands, towards the legal limits, you enjoy no such enhancement. The value of small donors’ speech is amplified exponentially, and at little real cost. Another option is a tax voucher that rewards political participation for lower- and middle- income donors. If you meet certain tax bracket parameters, then you will qualify for tax rebates matching or exceeding political contributions. Again, this simple measure would amplify and encourage small donor participation, with very little public expense and without violating anyone else’s purported First Amendment rights.
Traditional barriers for campaigns should be weakened and broken so that seeding a political campaign does not require gobs of money. Through specifically purposed subsidies to television networks, campaigns could be exempt from the exorbitant cost of running primetime ads. Access to broadband should be viewed as a right for all, rather than a privilege. With broadband access, lower- and middle-class voters and donors can be reached for next to nothing, and grassroots movements centered on pertinent causes can emerge from thin air through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social networking.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has dropped from the first-ranking broadband country a decade ago to the 16th today, according to rankings from the International Telecommunications Union. And it’s not just a lack of access (or ‘penetration’ to use the industry lingo)—broadband in the States is also far more expensive on a per capita basis than in places like Canada, Denmark or Taiwan because there is not adequate competition. While trust-busting the telecom oligarchy would be exceedingly difficult, engineering ways to enhance information for consumers for more informed choices is not. The Federal Election Commission has a wealth of information that need only be distilled into a reader-friendly format on a public site for all to access. And in addition to this simple measure, voters should push members of both parties in Congress to support the Obama administration’s National Broadband plan.
Beyond the problem of special interest money in elections is civic engagement more generally. For a country that prides itself as the world’s primus inter pares democracy, a 50 percent average voting rate is alarmingly low. Most don’t think his or her vote will change anything. So why not create an economic incentive through a tax refund for voting? Unlike the controversial Poll Tax of the 19th Century, used to disenfranchise black voters, this would take the opposite approach by creating an incentive rather than a disincentive. The crucial difference between incentivizing civic engagement and restricting it is that the latter is unconstitutional while the former just makes sense.
The salient solution to the overall problem is to address the messaging away from arguably unconstitutional, restrictive approaches to measures that encourage and incentivize everyone, regardless of socio-economic factors. Faith in government and the value of exercising one’s liberties must be restored. People should enjoy dividends for caring enough to participate. But to do so legislators and the administration must do all they can to convince the people that one’s vote actually matters and that one’s liberties have practical worth, irrespective of the size of one’s wallet. Saying you’ll take down the fat cats always sounds better than saying you’ll enhance access for the lower- and middle class, but the former never really works. It’s rhetorical gold that translates into policy lead.
A retreat from burdensome regulations coupled with efforts to enhance wider civic involvement should appeal to opponents of big government and opponents of big business alike. At this juncture, it is the ideal—and indeed, the only feasible—approach. If such efforts fail at the federal level then they should at least be implemented in the states through local pressure on state and municipal governments or through ballot initiatives. Redefining the standard locally, in enough places, could then trickle up to national acceptance, similar to the trend seen in same-sex marriage. In his new book, Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb tells the story of Alison Smith, an average citizen from Maine who fought for and won the passage of that state’s Clean Elections system. People just like Alison are everywhere; they just need to see that there is a way forward.
The ideas presented above are but a few. But if our current leaders can change the message towards encouragement instead of discouragement, then the possibilities for even more practical fixes are limitless. Or in the straightforward words of the late Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock, another average citizen like Alison Smith who became a national icon when she marched across the country at the ripe age of 90 to challenge the role of money in elections: “If we are to retain our democracy, we must proceed in a new direction.”
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