Changing Our Elections

Part I

We’ve publicly funded presidential elections since 1976.  We tried to get the money out of presidential races.  The idea was to give presidential candidates public money that they, in turn, would use to advertise themselves and win the voter’s attention and votes.  Leveling the playing field is a great theory.  It was just a nice idea.  Money never quite edged out of presidential races.  
As a result of Obama’s fund-raising in the 2008 election, the idea of public funding may have been killed.  We’ll have to wait and see what happens in 2012 and 2016.  Obama discovered he could rake in amounts that made the public funds look puny.  He raised a lot of cash.  He won.  
Should we continue to use tax dollars to fund presidential races?  Should we bag it as one more good idea that failed?  Perhaps we’ve been cheap, should we increase the amounts?  Instead of a $3 tax check off, how about $5 or $10?  For that matter, should we just shut down the FEC, end all accountability and  let the money flow?
If we persist in an attempt to control money in politics, we are trying to beat a dead horse to death.  People with lots of money will contribute to candidates (in any other setting we’d use the verb “buy”).  Politicians will accept money.  Most pols will play by whatever rules exist.  Yes, given the rules most pols are ethical.  However, some will break the law.  Some will come within a millimeter of committing a crime but remain merely ethically challenged.
Today, our pols are lush with big donor money.  When has it been different?  I’m not sure it’s ever been that different,  However, this this time around, courtesy of the Supreme Court, pols can benefit from unlimited spending. Now we have to concern ourselves with the pals of the pols.  Pals put together Super Pacs.  Pals spend as much as they want and as they  see fit.
We’ve already seen the effects of Super Pacs.  Gingrich learned that non-coordinated attacks from Super Pacs can sunk his U.S.S. Iowa.  Of course, others who are friends of Newt, returned fire in South Carolina.  Miracle of miracles the good ship Mitt foundered on the shoals of unspent funds.  Money and politics will not be separated.
The problem with the money, is simple.  People who donate large sums of cash, expect something in return.  There may be one donor who is just interested in seeing a candidate win and nothing else, but he’s in the 1% of big donors.  The 99% of donor whales want a return on their investment.  That’s when money corrupts our politics and our government.  
Elected officials do favors for a donor.  A tax break here or a regulatory exemption there does yield a significant return on an investment.  Perhaps a bit of restraint of trade is needed to keep foreign products out, perhaps a donation is made. I understand domestic sugar remains quite profitable.  I think you understand how this works.  It’s all so much Quid pro Quo.  Oh, that’s illegal.  
Our pols and their donors have figured out how to put the quo, the deed, antecedent to the quid or cash.  That’s legal. It works especially well if pols run for reelection.  A deed done in one Congress is compensated for when the pol runs to be a member of the next.
The longer a pols stays in office, the more money he or she collects.  The longer a pol stays in office, the more owned and operated by donors he or she becomes.  Their loyalty transcends parties, which is one reason Congresses have done less and less as more and more money has been collected to stay in office.  Congress is a confederation  of wholly owned to partially owned defenders of interests.  Members of Congress really should be attired akin to NASCAR drivers.  As least we would know all of their sponsors, patrons, and owners.     
Money cannot be beaten head on.  Pols will not change what they have.  They may not like the current system, but it’s a “devil you know” situation.  Expecting them to control donations and limit money is like expecting a junkie with the shakes to give you his last fix.  
One thing we usually overlook when we assess the relationships between politics and money, is votes and voters.  That is surprising, since all that money is collected for one  reason.  Candidates need to be elected.  The candidate who receives the most votes wins the election and can run for reelection.  Money is used to advertise candidates.  Do note incumbents have one additional edge, they may have bribed voters by “bringing home the earmark bacon.” Incumbents try to return more tax dollars to their home states than were collected in taxes.  The states of the former Confederacy does very well on this score.  
As increasingly more money is spent on elections, the elected do less and less governing for the electorate.  We have to wonder why we don’t change any of the practices associated with pols, elections, and reelections? The current practices are what they know, what they understand.  If one thing is changed, then incumbents might lose and one party might become over or under represented in the next Congress.  It really does come down to it’s “the devil you know.”    Is there any possibility of change?  Pols accept the current system.  Wouldn’t you retain a system that yields a +95% assurance of keeping your elected job for all long as you want? 
Is there anything that can be done?  Well, I have a suggestion.  We don’t go after money.  For that matter, we could also decide to back unlimited spending on any aspect of elections, provided there is strong transparency on who gives how much to whom.  That seems like a fair trade.  We allow unlimited money for total transparency.  Why not?
We don’t demand that pols change behavior either.  We don’t even get rid of the presidential election fund, however, here is my suggestion, we quit using the money to fund presidential campaigns. 
Instead, we use the money to finance the operations of running elections in our States and their localities.  Right now, states, localities and political parties pay the freight for the polling place, the machines, the personnel.  We will use the presidential election fund to become a simple election fund.  The federal government will cover up all of those election costs.  We, the people, will become a kind of large donor  Oh, as we pick up the election costs, we will expect a return on our investment.  

Part II

In Part I, I came to the conclusion we cannot get money out of politics.  It does not matter how we try, money will find a crack, a loophole, a hole and flow to pols.  A small stream seems to become a torrent within one election cycle.  No one can stop the tide.
Since we cannot stop the flow, we need to end any pretenses that we can.  The presidential election fund, in particular, needs to be stopped.  We don’t actually end the fund, we merely redirect the money.
The agency that administers the fund does not even need to be renamed since the Federal Election Commission will take over the funding of all election operations in our states and localities.  The FEC will distribute money to pay for the people, places and stuff needed to administer an election.  
The Federal Government, We the People, will pay for all of our elections.  States, counties, and localities will be given money by the FEC.  It will take a bit more than the current check off of $3.  Perhaps, $10 a year for every tax filer is a reasonable amount.  If more is needed, that’s okay.  It’s a sensible expense that benefits us all.  
States, counties and other jurisdictions spend a small mountain of money to run elections.  In the interest of fair, uniform elections from coast to coast, We the People, will pay for them all.  We will pay money to each organization that administers and runs elections.  We will not merely cut 50 checks, akin to a block grant, to cover each State’s costs.  I’m sorry, I do not quite trust the States to insure that the money will be spent as intended.  Hence, many more than 50 payments a year will be made.  
As we do this, we ask for a return on our national investment in elections.  This is only fair.  It’s akin to the return expected by large donors to political campaigns.   We pay.  We demand.  So what should we demand? 
We demand ownership of the entire election apparatus.  We buy the voting process from A to Z.  We buy the voter registration laws.  We buy the voter ID laws.  We transform voting into one uniform process in every jurisdiction in our nation.  We set the rules and let the states implement them, but it’s more of a fully funded mandate than not.  Our goal is to fully realize the idea of one person, one vote.  It will take time, but we will have one standard to become a voter, and one standard to cast a vote.  It will be the same in every jurisdiction.  
We buy the elections proper.  We pay for the primaries and general elections.  As we pay for them we expect a few changes in their structure.  Political primaries will be restructured.  
We will require that all primaries for any office follow a set of standards for ballot access and follow the same calendar of events.  In other words, primaries, become a series of nationally scheduled elections.  States and localities use the same calendar for state and local only elections.  The election process will be a multiple part annual event.  
The mechanics of elections will become uniform.  Similarly ballot access is also standardized.  Elections, the primaries, become series of runoff and general elections.  We open the ballot to anyone who wants to run for an office as long as they meet a couple of requirements.
To become a primary candidate an individual must pay a filing fee.  This needs to be small enough to encourage people to run for office, but large enough to deter frivolous pursuits.  Perhaps in the $100-$1,000 range, perhaps more.  Oh, filing fees are sent back to the FEC and are not retained at the State, local or party level.  
Along with the filing fee, potential candidates will have to demonstrate that they are serious candidates.  They will have to submit petitions signed by registered voters in their jurisdiction who approve of the individuals run for office.   
By accepting the funds to run elections, States and localities agree to a runoff primary structure with reasonable ballot access requirements.  If this sounds as though it might challenge the current two party structure, well, it might, but it might not too.  
After candidates get on the ballot, when do we have elections?  First, we end Tuesday elections.  All elections become weekend activities.  People may vote on Saturday or Sunday.  Polls will open late, say 10 a.m. but will stay open late, say 10 p.m.  We hope this will increase voting participation.  It would be delightful to see at least 75% turnouts for every election.  We might hit 85% for presidential elections.  
Besides changing ballot access and when we vote, we increase the number of elections by one.  The first election, is the runoff primary election.  Any number of people can be on the ballot.  It is open to any qualified candidate.  That means there might be multiple Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, etc.  The ballot is composed of people who met the ballot access rules.  There is no party qualification per se.  There is will no longer be any government sanctioned party primaries.
If parties wish to privately convene to qualify people for the ballot, that’s great.  However, it’s all party money that is involved.  No tax dollars can be used to assist a party in any way.  Nothing in kind can go from the state to a party.   Some states use variations on runoff primaries already, we can, as we go forward see how well they have done and learn from their experiences.
Now that we have a ballot ready for weekend voting, what weekends will become national voting weekends?  The first primary is the elimination runoff vote.  The next election will be the runoff that establishes the final two or more candidates who go on to the general election.  To borrow from sports, it’s similar to having quarter finals, semi finals and the championship game, but it’s elections for public office. 
The first primary, or quarter final, election be held on the weekend preceding April 15th.   Given that the 15th is tax day, it may make folks a bit more sensitive for whom they cast their ballots.
The first primary candidates are winnowed for the next runoff elimination election.  There will need to be some rules that determine how many go forward.  At least half and no fewer than four seems reasonable.  However, if half is a number such as fifty, sixty or more, we will need a way to keep it sensible, 4-15 candidates or so seems manageable.  
At any rate, the winnowed slate will continue to a run-off, the semi-finals.  The run-off will yield the final two (or three if you’d rather) that head to the finals or general election.  The second run-off election should occur about July 4th.   A weekend before or when the 4th is on a weekend seems to be a good date.  The run-off yields the candidates for the general election.
The general election is still helped in November, but it’s on the first full weekend in November.  Two days of voting to select a Senator, a Representative, and a President seems eminently reasonable.  
I assume the same benefits that accrue to federal elections following this process would also accrue at the local level.  In essence, through the structure of our elections we empower ourselves to be responsible citizens and vote. That’s not a bad thing.   
Oh, one last item.  I accept that we cannot limit money.  It’s a losing proposition.  Perhaps we can set a timetable for both running and funding races.  Campaigning and fund raising should begin before January 1st of a given election year.  Along the way we have eliminated all the rules restricting money in our politics.  We eliminate all the explorations, committees to assess and such.  However as money flows it will have to be transparently and completely accounted for.  That seems to be a reasonable trade.  Effectively, Reps will have one year to live up their oath of office and one year to fund raise.  Ditto with the Senate (1of 5) and the President (1 of 4).  
I think we will need to think a bit more about the money though. 

Part III

I accept as a given that any attempts to limit the amount of money people want to spend on elections is futile.  We cannot effectively limit cash.  It’s even been declared speech by the Supreme Court.  I am surprized that any rules still exist.  I’ll be patient.  They will all go by the board.  
I also accept as a given that pols accept two basic kinds of money, large money and small money.  Small money, for example, is no more than $250 annually to all of a candidate’s campaign funds, PACs and whatever else a candidate shills, is clean money.  No single contribution makes or breaks a candidate.  Large money is when donors give the max and encourage their friends to do likewise.  That is money the talks, it says, “Here, and in return…”  
Large money is the source of government ineffectiveness and government corruption.  I’ll let others argue that it’s not.  I accept that it is.  Money buys things.  Pols are things.  Pols are bought.  I wonder if Goldmans has figured out a way to securitize pols and sell them to investors?
We cannot beat money per se.  We cannot limit its flow. However there a few reasonable things we can do to mitigate the effects of the cash.  
First, why don’t we trade existing law that limits campaign fundraising for a bit of calendar and a bit of geography?  It’s a small thing to ask to gain unlimited cash.  I’m sure our pols will not object--they will be able to collect more cash.
A calendar is imposed on donations.  We suggest a modest rule.  Donations can only be collected during the calendar year in which a pol is running for election.  During that year, from January 1st to December 31st, unlimited amounts of cash can be collected.  The cash can be spent any way the candidate wishes to spend it.  The cash can be carried over to the next election.  The cash belongs to the candidate, period.  However, as we made a trade on election administration, both trades call for a return of comprehensive accounting.  
Pols have to say who the money came from, how much was given, when it was given, how it was given, where it was received and by whom.  Names and addresses have to be collected.  The donations have to be reported within 24 hours or less of receipt.  The reporting will be made into a public database.
Since we all know that corporations are really made up of people, when a corporation makes an unlimited donation, the name of the company, plus the names of the CEO, Chairman of the Board and CFO must also be reported.  Similarly with any organization that donates, the names of those who make financial decisions must be reported.  It’s a small price to ask for unlimited cash.  Give your money, give your name and address.  Who can object to this? 
As money flows in, it also flows out for one year.  Election cycles are one year long.  Money can flow for 365 days.  Then the flow ends.  It awaits the next election cycle.  Campaign money is just that, campaign money.  Oh, those odd little fund raising groups like the RCCC and DCCC have to follow the same rules.  They get one year a term to be as greedy as they may.  Then it stops.  Ditto the Prez.
For example all the House members and their PACs during an election year go bonkers.  They rake cash in, they spend it, and they bank it.  As the year ends, they become deaf dumb and blind vis a vis campaign funds.  For one year, they try to govern.  For one year they behave as they do today.  We receive a 50% improvement in our Representatives. 
In the Senate the same obtains.  However we have to remember the Senate is elected in thirds.  The one-third that is elected in a cycle, has one year to grab all the fiscal gusto they can.  Then, upon victory, they end all campaign cash activity.  The winner have five years to SenatorialIn the sixth year it would be grab every gold ring you can.  
In the Senate, this would allow every other year to be a year in which all 100 members could live up their oaths of office since no one would be running for office.  In the other on years, one-third would be running.  With this change the Senate might again becomes the world’s greatest deliberative body instead of enjoying it’s status as the world’s greatest debilitative body.  We would receive a 33% improvement in our Senators.  
I almost forgot.  Remember that public database that documents the money pols collect?  It’s also used to account for every expenditure.  Every penny in has to accounted for.  If a penny is spent it has to be accounted for, in detail.  How much detail, well have you ever had to deal with an accountant from hell?  We can discuss the accounting at another time.  
As unlimited money comes in and it accounted for election years we also have to bring in geography.  Elections are local events.  We have House Districts and States.  Representatives serve Districts of about 708,000 people.  Senators serve entire states.  I have never understood anyone raising money outside their district or state.  
I bet you have anticipated the next exchange.  A pol can collect unlimited cash during an election year as long as it comes from within the jurisdiction he serves.  Reps are restricted to funds from any entity in his district.  Similarly Senators are restricted to donors from his state alone.
Obviously, the President is a national office.  Hence a candidate to the top slot can take cash from anyone in the United States.  His reach is limited but his hands can hold as much cash as folks want to give him.  It’s all his.  Of course, that means the first three years he’s in office, he can be presidential since campaign finance cannot begin until January 1 of his election year cycle.  Gee, a 75% improvement in the presidency!
Let’s Review.  As We the People use the Presidential Election Fund and the FEC to fund all elections, We expect all candidates will be treated fairly.  We change how and when we have elections.  Granted this is driven by federal elections.  I assume states and localities will follow the same rules in all of their elections, both those timed with the federal and the off years.  It’s a small price to pay for all the money that will be granted to states and localities.  It’s a reasonable swap, isn’t it? 
We also trade away existing finance laws.  In exchange for unlimited campaign cash, we ask for a bit of accounting, a calendar, and some geography.  We expect campaign cash to be fully accounted for, in public.  Similarly, we ask for a bit of calendar and geography based rules.  These rules not to limit the how much cash can be accepted, but merely the when and where is can be banked.  It seems to a fair trade.  It might make things better, I doubt it could make things worse.  
Now about the advertising...


slceddiec said...

Off the top of my head I believe one major concern of mine you did not address is the Delegate style of voting. The Electoral College is pure bullshit! And even though it's suppose to be a way for the little people to get involved, it's not, so the caucus' are pure unadulterated bullshit too.

If you are a citizen and of voting age, you have one vote and it should count, your vote Jake as equally as Wareen Buffet's, my vote as equally as Sean F'ing Hannity. And it shouldn't matter who we cast it for both locally and nationally.

We are so so God-Damned broken it's embarassing. We have asked the U.N. to NOT sanction the democratic voting process in other parts of the world because of low voter turn out and we can't get anymore than 40% of our own citezens to vote. They should unsaction us for for hell sakes.

I agree with you on all the $$$ stuff Jake, our election process and our Pols have been hijacked (purchased). Whenever things are as confusing as they are now, I always apply the K.I.S.S. principal, Keep It Simple, for Stupid me!

We should pay for elections for any who want to run, but make it the same for all. This 2 party crap has got to go. If you make say <50K then deduct $0.50 out of each paycheck during the year for the 'Election Fund'. If you make >50K then deduct $1.00, etc. and gradually increase it depending on ones income up to say $5.00 per paycheck. Keep 90% of it locally and send 10% of it on nationally. No, I repeat 'NO' raising of money period by any candidate for any office so as to get rid of all SuperPacs, Special Interests, Corporations, etc.!

Although I agree in principal with most of your thinking, you know as well as I that a national database will not do the trick when it comes to accounting for great sums of money regradless of how it was raised and accrued, and regrdless of how and on what it was spent on.

In short, I'm looking for more than a 33% increaase in government effectivness.

Now, how can we account for the money under my ranting proposal?

Jake said...

Thanks Ed,

I think you have provided enough questions and insights for the next installments on our elections. Money is a problem, if we can't beat it, we can try to track it. The problem really is, who listens to analysis of donors? I agree with the electoral college-- real simple, popular vote wins.

KISS is an approach I've used since I was in the Army. We had to, it was too easy to make things overly complex.

Agian thanks, I'll have to put my thinking cap on to repsond your comments.

Thanks for reading my long post.