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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Elections and Campaign Finance Reform (Geocities Rescue)

This essay discusses how to better select congressional and presidential candidates and how to better fund elections. The underlying theme behind these proposals is the strengthening of political parties.

Linking the Executive to the Legislative
Many political scholars note that the rise of interest groups and the independent Congress makes party governing impossible, with interest group pluralism and PAC money blocking meaningful reform. This is particularly so in the agriculture, business and insurance areas, whose interest groups block changes in farm subsidies, transportation and health care, just to name a few cases. With the multiplying of interests has come the fragmenting of political life.

Stronger relationships are needed between presidential candidates and congressional candidates to make governing easier. To build these relationships, I propose a national July 4th primary for House and Senate candidates in Presidential election years. During these campaigns congressional candidates declare for a presidential contender, who accepts or rejects that linkage (a presidential candidate may link with more than one congressional candidate). On Election Day the voter casts one vote for House, another for Senate (if applicable) and by doing so votes for the Presidential candidate linked to that candidate. The nominees for each House and Senate race, along with state Governors, gubernatorial candidates and Senators not up for reelection, caucus in August to pick the party nominee. This nominee owes his success, in part, to the congressional candidates. The congressional candidates owe their success, in part, to picking the favorite in the presidential race. These debts are not forgotten after the election. This voting scheme also provides linkages in the minds of voters between the candidates of the same party, and lessens split ticket voting.

Party Leadership
Split ticket voting is never be totally eliminated, as the voters seem to use it to assure that one party does not get too much power. Often, one party wins the White House while the other wins the Congress. In much of recent memory the losing presidential candidate fades into obscurity while his party loses its unifying voice and attempts to govern with many leaders. This waste is almost tragic, and entirely unnecessary. In those cases where one party controls the White House while the other controls the Congress, the losing presidential candidate can retain the mantel of party leadership and present his or her legislative program as if elected. This will focus the energies of his or her party, which obviously held some attraction for voters. Further, in a free society the losing candidate has as much right to offer such an agenda as the winner, as the President's role as chief legislator is almost entirely traditional. To assist the party leader in this, allow parties to establish a fund to pay analytical staff, especially in the budget arena. The result is a party program that means something, and provides a clear choice for voters in each succeeding election.

Financing Elections
The other way to make elections mean something is to increase competitiveness in the nomination process. By far the biggest incumbency advantage is the ability to raise funds independently for election. Major contributors and Political Action Committees insulate party candidates from party influence and make governing more difficult. Many reformers in the past have proposed the adoption of public financing and spending limits, while limiting the size of PAC donations. Allowing PACs to give any money to candidates directly at any level leaves candidates independent of party control and simply multiplies the number of PACs. Spending limits fail on free speech grounds and because they naively assume that an excess of money is the problem in elections. Anyone who has fundraised in a campaign knows that there is no such thing as too much money.

The solution to the funding problem must strengthen the parties, or it merely invites accounting gimmickry. This premise leads to an obvious solution. Prohibit PACs and individuals from giving money directly to candidates. Instead, PACs and individuals contribute to the political parties, who then distribute the money strategically, and without regard to the wishes of the PAC. Candidates are then much more considerate of the party program, and less likely to sell out to individual interests. Additionally, the strictest of guidelines are set up so that donations earmarked for the benefit of a single candidate are minimized.

How this money is distributed to primary challengers is key, in both presidential and off-year congressional elections. In presidential races, which are publicly funded, the campaign of each prospective nominee distributes funds to supportive congressional candidates for their primaries. Of course, this leaves the problem of inequality between presidential contenders. There is a solution to this, however, which is used with either donated or public money.

For each congressional or senatorial race, two months prior to the national primary or off-year state primary, each party holds a caucus to decide who is eligible for funding. Each congressional candidate attends, bringing as many of her supporters as she can. All declared candidates who haves qualified for ballot access attend. Any candidate who brings at least fifteen percent of the total qualified attendees receives an equal share of campaign funds. Any candidate who fails to reach this threshold is removed from the ballot. This threshold level is high enough to weed out candidates who are not serious, but low enough so that serious contenders are able to overcome efforts by the incumbent’s political machine to pack the house. Judicious use of this process allows presidential candidates to emerge who otherwise are written off and overcome the incumbency advantage in most congressional races.

The method I propose here is so good, it is unlikely to pass on its merits. Only use by a third party, such as the Greens or the Reform Party, spurs its adoption, provided that the voters turn out for third party candidates selected in this way. I bet that even a twenty percent showing by such a party using this method scares the major parties into seeking its adoption.

Local Government Representation
Getting the vote out in local contests is another serious concern. In purely local elections, most voters do not vote, nor do they pay attention to local politicians, especially at the state legislative level (even though these elections affect them most). The major parties often don't speak well to individual local issues. Additionally, poor citizens, as well as minority party-members, often have disproportionately low turnout in local elections because of their slim chance in winning or their perception of low influence. In many races, candidates do not reach out to minority voters in fear of alienating the majority. Racial gerrymandering is still an issue, as well as partisan gerrymandering. To counter this, try local multi-party democracy and proportional representation. These systems give every party that turns out a minimal number of voters a seat, or seats, in the halls of government. With a lower threshold of victory, more parties and previously disenfranchised citizens participate. More participation results in the representation of all interested parties in local government, not just the richest or the loudest. Such a government requires more deliberation and coalition building, and is less likely to run roughshod over the rights of minorities (for example, closet Republicans in Ward 3 of Washington, D.C., many of whom are registered as Democrats so that they have an influence in the primaries).

Representation is increased in two ways. The first is total proportional representation, where everyone in the state, city or county gets one vote in the general election for his or her party slate. The total number of available seats is then divvied up by the total number of votes for each party, in proportion to the actual vote. This is currently how elections are held in Puerto Rico, which has a 97% rate of voter turnout. The other option is to have multiple seats per voting district, with at least one seat reserved for the non-majority party (as I proposed in the essay on improving the District of Columbia Government). In either case, voters are likely to have some effect on the composition of the legislature, making the legislature more responsive and increasing voter turnout.

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