Publicly Funded Election Cycles — A Suggestion and Analysis from Ben

Today’s post is a guest post, and a method of ‘kick-starting’ a friend’s new blog; I am posting his first entry here. I hope his careful insight and analysis of issues is helpful and interesting. Ben is a long time friend of mine. He has Master’s degree in Public Policy from BYU, where he focused on microeconomic theory. He has worked as a financial analyst. His hobbies include math, Russian, Chess, hiking, and Ultimate Frisbee.

He entitles this post:

How to Stop Money and Partisanship from Ruining Our Political Process.”

 

The Problems

Political parties

The politics surrounding the recently passed health care bill has brought public attention even more to a problem that has been steadily growing. Political parties have been growing stronger and generally less willing to compromise since the mid-nineties. This leads to politicians voting and acting in ways that appeal to various political parties rather than the general public. In addition, appealing to a party does not necessarily imply appealing to party moderates. Those seeking political office need to appeal to those who will vote in their party’s primary election, which is not representative of the whole party (not to mention the general public). We see the influence of political parties reflected in the party line votes that so often come out of Congress. When one party doesn’t hold a filibuster-proof majority in Congress (or if a party has a few defectors) we often end up with gridlock and no bill gets passed at all. This unfortunately means that our political system is more like a football game with a red team and a blue team, invoking all the hysterical behavior that football fans can muster.

Money in politics

Another problem we face is the influence of money on political campaigns. Those running for office spend large amounts of money on their campaigns, and those with less money seem to have less of a chance of winning office. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can contribute to political campaigns,i leading President Obama to comment that this gives “the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington.”ii

How much money is spent on political campaigns? According to a story by Politico.com, “the 2008 campaign was the costliest in history, with a record-shattering $5.3 billion in spending by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races.”iii At the time of the writing of this article, Barack Obama had already raised over $86 million and Republican candidates had raised a total of more than $80 million for the 2012 presidential election cycle.iv

The Solution: Publicly Funded Debates

We can weaken the influence of political parties and fix the problem of money in political campaigns at the same time. I propose we move to a system of government funded debates. Following is an example of how this would work for an election of the president of the United States. At the beginning of the debate cycle, people will meet at town meetings throughout the nation. At this meeting, anybody who wants may come to the front and explain why he or she would make a good president. People at the meeting can ask them questions and they can debate with other potential candidates as well. At the end of the meeting, everybody present votes for someone at the town meeting. The top two winners will go on to the district level.

A subsequent, larger, meeting will be held at the district level and those who won the town meetings will participate in a debate. After the debate, the people at the meeting vote again to select a candidate to go to the state level. By the time the debates are at the state level they will be broadcast on T.V. and voting will occur at polling stations. From the state debates, winners will go to regional debates, and finally about four or five candidates will appear in series of televised national debates. These debates will be followed by a (ballot) vote and the winner of the vote will become the next president.

Along the way, candidates will also have the opportunity to give 30 minute presentations of their ideas without facing interruptions or immediate questions from other candidates. (They will be facing plenty of that during the debates.) These presentations will have rules: the candidates will have equal time for their presentations, and equal resources available for preparing them. They will not be allowed to play music. They will not be allowed to merely slander their opponents.

Notice that this process says nothing about party affiliation of those who enter the debates.

Anybody with any point of view may enter the debates at the lowest level. Those who do enter the debates are required to follow certain rules. They will not be allowed to direct an organized campaign. If other people want to put signs in their yards saying vote for so-and-so, they may, but the candidates themselves communicate with the public only through the official debate process. This would be a temporary restriction of the candidates’ free speech which they would knowingly and willingly agree to so long as they choose to remain in the debate cycle. They are allowed to say whatever they want in the debates of course, but they won’t be able to call corporations or other politicians and promise political support in exchange for campaign support.

These rules governing candidates in the debate cycle will be enforced by an election committee. The purpose of this committee will not be to make subjective decisions about what people can say during a debate, but rather to set up and organize debates according to predetermined rules. As for questions put to the candidates, they could come from the general public, but the system by which questions are selected, among so many being entered, will have to be designed and planned, and so that may be left to an election committee as well. This choosing of questions should follow an orderly and transparent process.

Recent debates between Republican presidential candidates are a step down from traditional debate formats and could be described as “antagonistic press conferences.” The debates proposed here should be better designed. Candidates should be given adequate time to explain their positions, including complex positions. They should be given time for rebuttals and cross-examinations.

Analysis

Not every problem solved

The campaign system proposed here leaves many problems unsolved. In the first place, democracy has always had the problem that a candidate can make many fair promises to the electorate in order to gain votes only to do something different. Candidates would try to win votes based on good looks, good speaking skills, and emotional appeals. The public will have difficulty understanding the technical details which must necessarily be considered in order to make good policy decisions. Without technical details, political debates are often more about persuasively appealing to people’s ideologies, rather than a careful cost/benefit analysis of all available options. We already have these problems in American politics, and they are probably too hard to solve right now. The publicly funded debate system described here does solve some problems however, and it may be worth switching.

No more money in campaigns

The problem of money in campaigns would be almost completely solved. Whether or not you had a lot of money to contribute to a campaign would matter little. An average American could potentially become the next president of the United States. (This would be unlikely however, because other candidates would probably point out your complete lack of political experience.)

Weakened influence of political parties

The Constitution says nothing about political parties. They came into existence on their own. They are held in place by candidates’ need for campaign support. If campaigns were publicly funded, and anyone were allowed to enter the political debates and potentially show up on the ballot, regardless of party identification, political parties would be greatly weakened. Candidates could still say their political philosophy matches that of Republicans or Democrats (or Libertarians, or Socialists, etc.) but because candidates’ points of view would not be held in place by the need to appeal to a party base, these distinctions would become blurred. Without the need to identify with a party in order to appear on the ballot, the mechanism for keeping party ideologies uniform would disappear. Political parties would fade away. Few things could be better for our government than this.

Third party” representation

There would be no “third party” candidates because parties would disappear. Nevertheless, those who hold a point of view that would, under the current system, be considered a “third party” point of view would have a much better chance of being elected. Right now we say that a candidate is “far-right” or “center-left,” etc., but under the public funded debate system, a candidate can have views from both the left and the right, and from things that don’t fall well into that dichotomy.

Taxes

In order to fund debates, some tax money will need to be used. Overall, the total amount spent on political campaigns would be far less, but it would come out of taxes rather than from individuals choosing to donate. Spread out over so many people, the tax burden per taxpayer would be very small, probably less than five dollars per year. It is worth this cost if it will solve the problems with our current system.

Need to appeal to everyone at once

Right now a candidate running for president can go to Iowa and tell the Iowans that he or she considers nothing in this nation more sacred than the right to receive corn subsidies. Then he or she can go to Utah and explain why nothing stands out more prominently in the Constitution than the right to personally own an AK-47. In the publicly funded debate system, the whole nation would be watching nationally televised debates. What the candidates say to one they say to all. While it is true that voters can find videos of what candidates are saying throughout the nation, most Americans do not have the time to follow all the candidates so closely. Nationally televised debates provide a good setting for Americans to listen to candidates’ positions explained in full in one sitting.

Change in media coverage

Should we implement this system of federally funded debates, the nature of media coverage of the candidates and their platforms would change. We would not see a series of sound bites from the candidates on the news every day. Candidates often play an image game where they try to make their opponent look bad by making fun of something dumb their opponent said, or digging up some third grade essay that their opponent wrote. The media loves to cover these entertaining antics, but what is good for T.V. ratings is not always good for understanding candidates’ views on the issues.

Sometimes people complain that the media picks a winner in elections. Indeed, more media coverage can lead to better name recognition and a better shot at winning. A publicly funded debate is a controlled setting wherein candidates get roughly equal time. Based on the way televised debates occur now, it seems more like a forum where arguments are actually made. By making candidates respond to questions they will have to address issues rather than merely play the image game. Furthermore, as explained earlier, debates could be better structured than the style already shown on T.V., to improve the quality of arguments made.

No more campaign slogans

Candidates will have to package themselves differently. Politics now is full of slogans possibly because it works as something simple that candidates can use to flood the media. Under the debate cycle campaign rules, candidates won’t be allowed to organize some massive distribution of a slogan. They have to look good in debates. Slogans would have to be mixed up with complicated arguments, rendering them less effective.

Higher turnover

This process will likely result in much more turnover, which could be a good thing. Incumbents would face a tough battle every election against the newbies. In other words, the value of political experience to winning an election would be weakened. Some might see this as an advantage because they don’t like the idea of having career politicians. Others might see this as a bad thing. Right now, members of the House of Representatives, who face an election cycle every two years, are incentivized to prefer policies with short term gains even when they are bad in the long term because they are worried about the upcoming election cycle. If we consider it a bad thing to threaten incumbents so greatly, because that threat will lead to shortsighted behavior in office, we can give them an advantage by not requiring incumbents to enter at the lowest level, but giving them an automatic bid to the debate at their level. They would still face a significant challenge at this level. This is an issue that could be further explored later.

Fewer people paying attention to politics

Because debates are more boring than sound bites, fewer people will pay attention to what candidates are saying. Right now, there are so many signs in people’s yards, sound bites on news programs, T.V. commercials, etc. that it is almost impossible to be unaware that campaign season has come. In the publicly funded campaign system, candidates will be restricted to the controlled debate cycle, resulting in less media coverage. Nothing will necessarily prevent political commentators from talking about the candidates all they want. Nevertheless, because the whole thing will be less festive, political commentators would not be able to find an as large an audience as they would during a traditional campaign season.

Fewer people voting

Because campaigns would not be as well advertised, fewer people would vote. We might expect those who are public spirited to vote however. These voters would be better informed about the candidates, because the debate system makes forces candidates to answer questions rather than play the image game (compared to what we have now). We would be trading a larger number of voters for better informed voters.

No pre-filtering

One might make the argument that candidates would be more technically competent under our current system. Part of gaining a party’s nomination is appealing to party elites, and these elites may have better political savvy than the general public. These elites want their party to win in the short-term and long-term. If party elites are partially responsible for selecting candidates, they will filter out those who appeal to the general public but lack true political skill, because they realize that a poor politician from their party will threaten the party’s standing in future elections. Individual non-party system candidates don’t face this kind of peer assessment.

Implementing the Publicly Funded Debate System

Implementing the publicly funded debate system will not be easy. Unfortunately, creating such a system would almost surely require an act of Congress, and no group would feel more threatened by such a system than Congress. In order to implement the debate system, the idea needs to gain widespread public support. Then the public would need to pressure Congress to make it happen. Since this still hasn’t been tried, it might be a good idea to try it in elections for local government offices first and work out the kinks. Once the system is working well, the public will be able to point to positive results as an argument for implementing the system nationwide. Right now, there is more dissatisfaction with the political process than ever before. This gives us an opportunity to change the system for the better. We should use this widespread dissatisfaction to improve the process for future generations.

Details need to be worked out

The above describes the basic idea of how a publicly funded debate system would work. At the same time, some details still need to be filled in. For example, what should be the rules for people entering the debates at the lowest levels? At a low level, an influential businessman could organize many friends to come to the debate and vote for him. This might make the low level debates into a competition to see who can get the most friends to show up. Also, possibly so many people would want to be part of the debate that none of them would have sufficient talking time. It might be a good idea to impose some kind of rule that ensures that only those really serious about contending for office would be part of the lowest level debates. Readers of this paper are thus invited to contribute their ideas for improving the system described here.

This paper contains a survey of areas that any campaign reform proposal might have on society, including what issues need to be thought about when implementing such a system, and how the change could benefit (or possibly harm) government decision making. One proposal for diminishing the influence of money on politics through publicly financed campaigns has been discussed, but many of the observations made here would also apply to other ways of publicly financing campaigns. Plenty of room is still open for discussion.

-Ben Warner

i This was the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

iii http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1108/15283.html. The record breaking amount was as of the time the story was written in November 2008.

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