Monday, February 2, 2015

Rescuing American Democracy

A healthy democracy depends on a large percentage of the electorate voting and on the voting outcome being the result of a debate on issues and policies.  Our democracy is far from healthy on both these fronts. (I know there are other problems, but those are not within the purview of this post.  See, for example, "The Value of Differing Opinions," 1/4/13.)

In the US, voter turnout is notoriously low even in presidential election years compared with other developed countries.  (The US rate was recently 62%, well below the average of 70% and the top country, Australia, with 95%.)  Certainly, some eligible citizens choose not to get registered and vote.  But much of the low voter turnout results not from choice but from obstacles to voting, which belie the principle of “one man, one vote” and dilutes the participatory nature of our democracy.

A major obstacle in the U.S. is the day selected for elections.  In most countries, election day is on a Sunday, making it easier for people to vote.  In those countries that vote on a weekday, many declare election day a national holiday in order to make it easier for people to vote.  

In the US, of course, voting is on a Tuesday; it is not a national holiday; and voter turnout is shamefully low.  There is thus a nascent movement afoot to have federal elections on the first weekend in November.  As stated in a New York Times op ed piece, “Our current system penalizes single parents, people working two jobs, and those who have to choose between getting a paycheck and casting a ballot. Two weekend days of voting means those working families would have a greater chance of making it to the polls.”

But short of making such a change, it has been generally accepted for several decades that voting should be encouraged by making it as easy as possible to both register and vote.  These efforts have recognized that many people need expanded hours and early voting to have effective access to the polls because of their jobs.  

Recent efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict early voting and expanded hours thus attack the principle of “one man, one vote.”  The same is true of laws that require photo IDs.  Both of these efforts make voting more difficult, especially for the working poor.  Voting is an essential right of citizenship; no unnecessary obstacle should be placed on that right.  

The primary concept behind the Constitutional right of free speech and its importance to the functioning of our democracy is the concept of a “marketplace of ideas.”  For this marketplace to function properly, the consumer’s choices should be made based on the quality of the competing ideas not on the marketing effect caused by unequal funding of campaigns.

Since we have never had public financing of campaigns, the unequal impact of money on the marketing effect has always been problematic.  But in recent years, the Supreme Court has struck down even the meagre laws we had attempting to restrict the amount of money given to campaigns by an individual and the amount of money corporations can spend on campaign and issue ads on the basis that such laws are an unconstitutional abridgment of the right to free speech.  

These rulings have resulted in exactly what was feared … an avalanche of corporate and big donor (and thus primarily conservative) dollars in an attempt to influence the outcome of elections, not by virtue of the quality of their ideas but the overwhelming volume of marketing.  This makes the marketplace of ideas totally dysfunctional.

It also dilutes the concept of “one man, one vote.”  If one takes the concept seriously, it necessitates not just that no person’s actual vote counts more than another’s, it means that no person’s voice counts more than another’s …  at least not because of the amount of money a person has.  Because if it does, if money talks in elections, then a relatively small body of people and corporations have a much greater voice in the election and thus often the outcome of an election than the general voting populace.  Obviously, money doesn’t always ensure winning.  But it sure helps.  This is contrary to the egalitarian nature of our democratic principles.

For this reason, we should have public financing of elections with all candidates having the same amount of money to spend and with all outside advertising, whether on issues or candidates, prohibited within a certain time period of elections.

But the proper functioning of the marketplace of ideas requires more than equal time (a concept in broadcasting which unfortunately has been discarded).  It requires the absence of lies and deceit.  

I know the theory is that lies will be exposed in the give and take of the marketplace and so will not give the perpetrator an advantage.  However, in our viral instant communication age, the fact is that a falsehood once cleverly spoken attains so much currency that it is virtually impossible for the victim to recover, to effectively counter the lie and render it harmless.

What we therefore need is a “Truth in Political Advertising” law.  See my very first post, “Truth in Politics: De-Frauding American Politics,” 2/1/11.

There is nothing more important to the continued healthy functioning of our democracy than that we have an informed electorate, that a large percentage of the electorate votes, and that no one has a greater voice in the outcome of an election by virtue of the amount of money he (or a corporation) spends.  Laws need to be passed to protect and improve the process.