Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We Must Reform Our Election System


We have just witnessed the most obscene election in American history.  Obscene in the sense that $2.6 billion was spent on the presidential race.  Obscene in that the Supreme Court’s decision that money = speech gives new meaning to the phrase, money talks.  Obscene in that the Supreme Court’s decision that corporations are people entitled to their right of free speech meant that corporations as well as individuals could spend unlimited amounts of money in support of their preferred candidate.  

Obscene in that the principle of one man, one vote has been distorted because of the power of a small number of individuals and corporations to greatly impact the outcome due to the influence of their advertising dollars.  Obscene because even in a race with such clear differences between the two candidates and their positions, we have strayed far from the idea that free speech and elections in our democracy is about the contest of ideas.  This was a campaign based on slogans, which are not ideas.  Ideas require understanding, and there was no attempt at any stage of the process to provide voters with an understanding of the competing positions.

If we wish to save our democracy then we need to reform the electoral process.  The underlying principle is simple ... remove the influence of private funds from the election.  The campaigns would be financed by public funds, and outside PACs would be strictly regulated so that no individual or corporation could contribute more than a small amount of money to such efforts.

Such a system would entail a different approach to the campaigns.  No longer would they be premised on huge television ad campaigns with their resulting huge budgets and empty sound bites.  Instead we would have a true contest of ideas.  The candidates would have a certain amount of free air time on the radio and television to present their positions to the American people.  There would continue to be debates, but with a difference.  The moderators would have the authority to challenge the candidates when they provide misleading or factually incorrect answers.

Further, federal elections should be governed by federal, that is to say uniform, rules.  States can make their own rules for state elections, but the rules for elections for federal office should be the same regardless the state ... this includes the form of the ballot and type of voting machines.  Also, redistricting should be done by state nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions following federal guidelines.  Candidates need to be on the same footing everywhere and all citizens must be assured of the uniformity and fairness of the process.

Unfortunately, I can’t imagine such basic reforms ever being enacted by Congress.  The interests arrayed against such reforms are simply too powerful and entrenched.  

But at least such reform needs to become part of the public discussion.  Someone in Congress needs to have the guts make this his or her cause.  And perhaps one day, just as public opinion has evolved on other matters. the public will come to demand such reform and the politicians will have to comply.