5 Needed Election Reforms

We hear that political corruption is like the weather. Everybody complains about it, but nobody can do anything to change it. Well, I believe that’s just not true. In fact, I feel taking action on the moral climate of corruption is just as necessary for our survival as taking action on the changing climate of our planet. Political corruption is a form of pollution, and we ignore it at our peril. To stimulate thought and action, therefore, I’m distilling into one essay the five most widely supported election reforms. If we can enact even one of these reforms, perhaps starting locally and going national, the decline in political corruption will be tremendous.

The five election reforms below will not be easily enacted, yet the cause is worthy.

1. Public Funding of Public Elections.

So long as we have private funding of public elections — shielded behind the Big Lie that the freedom to spend (or freedom to bribe) is the same as freedom of speech — we will always have rampant corruption of electoral politics.

Instead, mandate that all registered candidates (see #3 below) get an equal amount of campaign funding from the taxpayers. Every campaign then must provide to the election system a weekly or biweekly accounting of all campaign expenditures. These reports will immediately be made public.

There would be no deficit spending and no borrowing. If a campaign does not manage its public allotment wisely and exhaust its funds before the election, too bad. They may not request more money than the other campaigns. Let their fiscal mismanagement serve as a warning to the voters.

The receipt or expense of any money outside of public funding would be deemed a criminal violation of election laws. This would cover private donations of any kind, including any payment of “honoraria” for speeches and public appearances as well as any consulting fees.

Those who would be affected by decisions made by any candidate, if elected, must make no financial contribution of any sort to the campaign of that candidate, which includes in-kind services, such as providing the facilities for phone banks.

If reported (or suspected) income and spending do not match the amount of funds provided by the taxpayers, an investigation must ensue. Criminal betrayals of the public trust need to incur fines and jail time, not mere slaps on the wrist.

Further, prohibit candidates from spending their own money on their campaigns, so wealthy candidate have no advantage over candidates with less affluence. A rich person would have an equal footing before the voters as a poor person.

A kindred rule would apply to ballot issues. No private funding would be allowed for or against any ballot initiative and referendum. Those for and against a ballot measure would receive equal funding from the taxpayers, and they would have an equal opportunity to make their case to the voters.

If ballot proposals are initiated through petitioning, let the proposal backers register far enough in advance that limited public funds can be provided to recruit unpaid volunteer petition carriers. If a decision is made to allow paid petition carriers (very risky), all petition carriers must be paid equally, either an hourly wage or a flat salary, regardless of how many signature they collect. In no instance may petition carriers ever be paid per signature, for this corrupting practice tends to suborn fraud and abuse.

Once a petition campaign collects enough signatures to merit inclusion on the ballot, let say, five percent of the registered voters, then the campaign become entitled to more public funding for the election itself (see #3 below).

The biggest argument against public funding of elections is the cost to taxpayers. However, that’s a red-herring fallacy. I contend that the overall cost of publicly funding elections will be significantly less than the cost to taxpayers from government corruption.

Think of all the tax money that could be saved by honestly elected representatives refusing to approve pork-barrel projects. Think of all the tax money we could save — from heedless healthcare waste to bungled banking bailouts — if public funding of elections could prevent corrupt people from getting elected in the first place.

2. Restore the Fairness Doctrine and Limit Political Advertising.

Require mass media companies (broadcast, cable, satellite, Internet, and print) to give equal news and commentary exposure to all candidates and all sides of ballot issues. Media ventures need to treat election campaign coverage as a public service, not as a profit center.

Media companies would cooperate to provide voters with unedited pool coverage of public forums and debates. This practice would apply locally and nationally. While news anchors and moderators may explain the proceedings, they must keep their opinions to themselves (except for clearly labelled editorials). Allow voters to make up their minds on their own without undue influence.

Campaigns would be entitled to purchase a limited and equal amount of commercial airtime and display advertising. The media companies would provide this airtime and print space at cost without profit, these cost verified and documented, paid by the campaigns from their public funding. All media expenditures would be publicly reported and reconciled with notarized media company advertising traffic logs.

Prohibit all privately paid political advertising from an third parties, such as political action committees. Those who are not named members of registered campaigns are free to voice their views — the same as all citizens — through social media, letters to the editor, yard signs, bumper stickers, and other forms of expression. Paid speech is not the same as free speech, and we need to stop pretending otherwise.

3. Reduce the Length of the Campaign Season.

Too many citizens do not bother to voter because they are put off by the endless campaign season (and all the negativity). We can reduce or prevent voter burnout by limiting the entire election season to three month or at most four months. This would be quite enough time for voters to do their due diligence and make informed decisions before they vote. This practice works quite well in Europe and other nations.

Reducing the election season also would reduce the amount of taxpayer outlay from the public coffers.

We could further cut costs if we more effectively use primaries to filter out unsupported options. Candidates and ballot issue backers would have to register their campaigns before a primary, let’s say six weeks before. Upon registration (with verification of eligibility and a criminal background check), they would promptly receive initial funding from the election system. The registered candidates and ballot issue backers will spend those public funds as effectively as they can before the primary.

Any candidate or ballot proposal that receives 33 percent of the vote in the primary can choose to remain on the ballot for the general election, perhaps six weeks later. In those cases, another round of public funding would promptly be distributed to the surviving campaigns.

Surviving campaigns could apply any unspent funds from the primary toward their general election campaign. Any funds still unspent after the general election would be returned to the election system. Campaigns that do not survive the primary must return any unspent funds to the election system immediately after the primary.

4. Every Vote Must be Counted.

Let’s be a lot more vigorous about preventing election theft by any political party.

The best place to start is thorough enforcement of security laws governing electronic voting machines — an urgent need that any reader of The Brad Blog (bradblog.com) already knows about. The most secure ballot remains a paper ballot with hand counts. The cost for hiring local election judges and ethical vote counters, please note, generally is lower than the cost for buying insecure digital voting systems, let alone the high costs for defending legal challenges to dubious election results.

Given that voter fraud using false identification is extremely rare, let’s admit that most of the GOP-backed voting fraud laws really are voter suppression tactics to prevent the Democratic-leaning lower classes and minority groups from having a fair say. This is a kindred tactic to Republican election officials purging voter registration rolls in democratic precincts, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods.

At the same time, we do need to step up enforcement of voter ID and signature verification laws for absentee ballots, which seems to be one area were abuses have been detected all too frequently. Republicans may be the offenders here more than Democrats, perhaps, but this is a vulnerable area where abuses are too easily committed by anyone.

We do not want corrupt people to steal elections any more than we want them to buy elections.

5. Make Voting Easier.

Support widespread or universal voter registration. Offer voter registration with motor vehicle registration and drivers license registration. Extend voting hours and days, so working voters are not discriminated against. Create more polling places within precincts, such as senior housing centers where residents have mobility issues.

By the same token, allow more provisional ballots at the polls. If the identity or registration of a voter cannot be verified by election judges at the polling place, set the ballot aside for later verification. Do not deny the right to vote when people leave their wallets at home. Citizens who want their votes to be counted will come back with an ID before the election is over, or else they will come to the election system offices shortly after the election. As the old saying goes, trust but verify.

Political corruption in America may never be entirely erased. Still, if we were to adopt this five-step plan, the reduction of corruption will be so significant that the difference in the moral quality and practical effectiveness of our government will be like the difference between night and day. Some of us may prefer operating covertly under the cover of darkness. Yet you may be like me and prefer living in the light.

Judah Freed is a seasoned journalist and the author of Making Global Sense (publication pending). A preview of the book proposal can be seen at GlobalSense.com. You may follow him on Twitter @judahfreed.

Judah Freed
Author: Judah Freed


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