Adding to the Woes of Publicly-Financed Elections

Tombstone for Public Financing of Elections

Today, both the Washington Post and the New York Times observed the untimely demise of the system by which election campaigns are publicly funded. Interestingly, they both seemed to point the finger at Hillary Clinton for having, in effect, pulled the plug on the ailing system. Here is, in part, what the Post had to say:

The public financing system designed to clean up presidential campaigns in the wake of the Watergate scandal may have died on Saturday when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) announced her bid for the White House.

Little noticed amid the announcement rollout was a page on her Web site in which she asked potential contributors to give her campaign checks of up to $4,200. That figure signaled not only that she plans to forgo public funds for primary season but also that, if she becomes the nominee, she will not take public money for the general election.

By opting out of the system, Clinton will be able to spend as much money as she can raise, both for the primaries and for the general election, rather than being forced to abide by strict spending limits imposed by the Federal Election Commission on candidates who accept public financing.

Others have opted out of public financing for the nomination campaigns, but Clinton is the first since the current structure was created in 1974 to declare she will forgo public financing in the general election as well.

Clinton’s decision will put pressure on other candidates in both parties to follow suit, and if they do, the 2008 campaign will complete what has been the rapid disintegration of a system designed to rein in unlimited spending in presidential campaigns. [full text]

The article goes on to say that “the system has broken down for several reasons, including the growing length of campaigns and escalating costs, especially for television advertising.” According to the Campaign Legal Center, “during the 2006 elections, the nation’s television stations took in an estimated $2.25 billion for campaign television ads.” In a letter to the Senate last month, the organization expressed concern about the skyrocketing cost of running a major political campaign and recommended support for a communications voucher system:

The growing spending on TV ads by candidates running for public office vastly increases the amount of time candidates and parties must devote to fundraising to communicate with voters. Broadcasters take in staggering sums renting time to candidates to communicate with the public over the publicly-owed airwaves. It is a system which enriches broadcasters but diminishes our democracy.

There is a better way. In past Congresses, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representatives Chris Shays (R-CT) and Marty Meehan (D-MA) have proposed the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act, which would provide candidates, who demonstrate a reasonable level of public support, access to the airwaves if they are able to raise small-donor money which is matched by a communication voucher. Candidates who wish to advertise can then “buy” airtime on broadcast TV stations with those vouchers. No government mandates, no government censorship, and, most importantly, a reduction in pressure to raise money to buy airtime. [full text]

There seems little question that the huge sums of money required to run for elected office have created—or, at least, reinforced—a system that excludes the vast majority of Americans from participation. Television advertising has factored into such. Of perhaps equal concern is the fact that TV ads have also furthered an environment in which the most conspicuous and dominant information about political candidates is typically the least substantive and accurate. Like any of their more commercial kin on the airwaves, political ads are largely intended to market and sell a product: the candidate. As such, the content of these ads is apt to tell potential consumers more about the packaging than the product. And, when all is said and done and the final results are tallied, the question that will have been answered is not necessarily who was the better candidate but who was better packaged and sold. And who had the resources to afford such. The sad truth, of course, is that none of us can really afford such.

As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were revealed today. Imagine if a great many members of the Academy were to vote for these prestigious awards on the basis of a viewing or two of the movie trailers rather than the movies themselves. It would not seem quite right. Nor is it right that a great many members of this republic vote for political candidates on the basis of a viewing or two (or ten thousand) of their television ads. A better system is needed, and the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act might represent a good start.

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One response

  1. Good post, David. This issue goes to the core of how our democracy is not living up to the dream — our elections are broken. I will keep my eyes peeled for the “Our Democracy…” Act and hope it goes through.

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