Campaign finance reform needed

The Supreme Court recently upheld a law in Florida that prohibits judges from personally soliciting campaign funds. Integrity is critical, Justice Roberts wrote, because the public must have confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice without fear or favor. Unfortunately, the Court has not been willing to extend this sound logic to politicians.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to lobby their government, and the right to free speech. Yet, today, it appears we have taken these noble ideas and created a system that goes far beyond the founders’ intent, where elected officials have to spend more time asking for money than asking for votes, and more time on their campaigns than on governing.

Justice Roberts cited the Federalist Papers to support his decision, but in those same papers James Madison argues it violates the principles of a republican government to favor “the elevation of the few on the ruins of the many.”

Most political candidates must raise money to be viable. They need to pay for travel, campaign staff, a get-out-the-vote effort, and enough advertising to have voters recognize their names and reputations. Advertising is expensive, TV stations take advantage of the increased demand, and the campaign season gets longer and longer.

In addition to the hundreds of millions that candidates raise, so-called independent expenditures have soared. More than $550 million was spent on last year’s midterm election by groups not directly controlled by the candidates or the parties, twice the amount spent on the prior five midterm elections all put together. “Super PACs” have become commonplace. More than $1 billion in outside money was spent on the presidential election of 2012, seven times as much as was spent in 2008, and 90 times as much as was spent in 1992.

This doesn’t count more than $3 billion that’s spent each year funding professional lobbyists to influence legislation.

Candidates who say one thing to their voters often give a different message to their financial backers. For example, a U.S. Senator who takes a public stance against gay marriage recently revised himself in front of wealthy donors who thought otherwise, and we don’t even think this is news.

A recent study found when a small but wealthy minority disagrees with the majority of voters on government policy, the views of the wealthy win out. It’s no wonder “we the people” are losing faith in the system.

Recent polling found 96 percent of registered voters feel it’s critically important to reduce the influence of money in politics, but 91 percent think nothing can be done about it. Thus, when one asks voters what are the critical issues their elected officials should address, campaign finance reform falls well behind other issues. Yet a congressmember who must spend hours each day dialing for dollars doesn’t have much time to spend on the issues the voters say they care about.

Houston, we have a problem.

More dollars are swaying fewer voters, or being used for attack ads to discourage them from turning out. In 2012, only 55 percent of the nation’s voting-age population voted in the presidential election, one of the lowest rates among the developed and democratic nations of the world. Only 64 percent of eligible Americans even registered to vote. In the midterm 2014 election, only 36 percent of the eligible population voted, the lowest rate since World War II.

Nevada’s turnout was even worse. Only 31 percent of Nevada’s 1.8 million potential voters participated in last year’s election. A candidate could have been supported by only 16 percent of the electorate and still won the election, a fact some think explained a lot about our current state legislature.

The Supreme Court helped create this mess in 1976 with Buckley v. Valeo. Campaign communication costs money, so the Court reasoned restrictions on campaign expenditures would limit the ability to express one’s views. The Court connected money with speech, but failed to consider under this logic, those without money would have their voices drowned out.

What can we do about it? Could we provide tax incentives for small donations to political campaigns and causes? A law recently passed in Tallahassee, Fla, provided up to a $25 tax rebate for campaign contributions. This could begin to dilute the impact of big donors.

Could we restore some version of the fairness doctrine to broadcasters using the public airwaves, to give time to both sides of an issue? It might dampen the enthusiasm of some if they knew for every million they spent on the airwaves they would be providing their opponent equal time.

Could we stop with the gifts, already? Arkansas voters recently passed a ballot initiative prohibiting constitutional officers and legislators from accepting any and all gifts from lobbyists. Most voters don’t get free tickets to NASCAR races, and most voters consider a meal at a fancy restaurant to be more appropriate for Mother’s Day than for doing the state’s business.

Can we require transparency, by requiring all groups to identify their biggest donors, such as those who contributed more than 1 percent of the total spending? Can we eliminate the tax exemption for political organizations who disguise themselves as nonprofit social welfare organizations?

Could we induce more people to vote, perhaps by providing tax incentives for those who vote? Would getting more people to vote incentivize candidates to care more about their voters than about their donors?

The point is not to limit speech or prevent people from donating to political issues they feel strongly about. The point is to reduce the oversized influence of the wealthy on government policy, at the expense of the interests of the middle class. As James Madison wrote, “Who are to be the electors of (our) representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.”

Kate Marshall recently completed two terms as Nevada State Treasurer. Elliott Parker is professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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