Sunday, November 09, 2014

When will democracy come to the USA?

I just watched a public affairs program from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in which Americans experienced in the Federal Election Commission explained to an audience from other countries how the 2014 federal election was financed. It brought home how bad our system looks to others, and how hollow are the claims of our democracy.

There is no public funding for candidates for Senator or House of Representatives in the federal system. The law provides for funding of candidates in presidential elections, but the funding limits are so low that Republican and Democratic candidates choose to raise their own money.

As I understood it, in the federal system there are three kinds of campaign financing:

  • That  raised by the candidates themselves, which must be reported to the Federal Election Commission and the donors disclosed. Adds paid for from these funds are the ones that include the statement that the candidate has approved the message.
  • That raised by the so-called Super PACs, in which the donors are also disclosed by less frequently. Apparently Super PAC donors often delay their contributions until so late in the campaign that they are only identified in the public records after the election is all over. Adds paid for by the Super PACs are identified by the organization (most voters of course never figure out who really funded them).
  • That raised by non-profit organizations supposedly organized for other than political purposes, that still raise money and advertise in elections. The only disclosure from these is to the IRS (our tax agency). Apparently the law says that these organizations should be regulated, but they are not regulated; the suit requiring the government agency to carry out the law is still working its way through the courts.
The discussion took place on the day before the voting. At that time it was estimated that $4 billion had been spent on the federal election, but that did not include such things as efforts to get out the vote (some of which are done by employees of rich donors rather than political parties). Increasingly, according to the speakers, more of the money is coming from wealthy donors, with individuals sometimes spending more than $100 million on a single election (yes. in a country of more than 300 million people, 2 1/2% of the total cost of the election may have been spent by a single person). Small donors are contributing less, in part because they feel that their contributions don't count when compared to those of the rich.

The most spending this year appears to have taken place in North Carolina, where at least $112 million was spent on the federal election. This is far from the largest of our 50 states, and the impact of the outside spending to influence the election must be considered to be huge.

The Federal Election Commission is composed of three Democrats and three Republicans by law. All are to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. In practice, the president actually nominates the Commissioners from his party, but simply rubber stamps the nominees from the other party that have been identified by the leadership of that party in the Senate. Unfortunately, the system is broken in the gridlocked Congress, and only two new Commissioners have been confirmed in the last 6 years; the rest were confirmed during the Bush administration and continue to serve.

The result of the system has been a flood of negative advertising. All the negative adds probably angers the voting public about the government. It is likely to explain the negative views of the political parties, and may be related to the very low turnout of voters -- who can't choose between two candidates both of whom seem bad.

The current emphasis on freedom of speech in election campaigns results in a situation in which there is no control to assure the truthfulness of campaign advertising. There seems to be no check on the false claims made by anonymous adds against candidates.

All of this in a country that was supposed to have fought two world wars to make the world safe for democracy, that fought two long wars in this short century to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. I suspect the foreign audience thought we were not living up to our out principles.

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