It's getting more and more difficult these days to fight the big money that
runs the political system.
And it appears the status quo would prefer it that way.
The New York Times reported recently that at the annual convention
of the National Association of Secretaries of State in July the big talk
was about bringing order to the presidential nomination process. One proposal
on the table appears to be to host several large regional primaries -- similar
in nature to the South's Super Tuesday -- that would be rotated every four
years to prevent any particular state or region from controlling the process.
The secretaries apparently are concerned that the jockeying to see who could
host the earliest primaries and caucuses -- and therefore put their state's
imprimatur on the race -- was creating a political crisis.
"This is getting to be a bigger mess than ever, a political and civic
crisis," William Galvin, secretary of state for Massachusetts, told
the Times after the convention.
There is a crisis. But it has nothing to do with a lack of order.
In fact, the problem is too much order and too great a reliance on the two
major parties. Essentially, the Democratic and Republican parties are private
clubs with privileges protected by law in most states. They are guaranteed
slots on the ballot and have their candidate selection processes -- the
primary election -- paid for by each state's taxpayers.
Contrast this with independent and alternative-party candidates who have
to climb the steepest of hills just to get their names before voters, and
then have to do battle against better-funded, better-coordinated and often
more professionally organized opposition.
During presidential elections, the concentration of power in the two-party
system is further consolidated, with front-running candidates determined
by a handful of states with early primaries and regions holding massive
multi-state primaries. Candidates need to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire
for their candidacies to be considered viable enough to the people who fund
their runs. Those candidates who can't raise the cash can't compete in the
races that follow -- the giant regional primaries that are fast becoming
the norm and that are the ultimate arbiter of who gets on the ballot.
And since the major media outlets generally ignore independents -- except
if they are like Ross Perot and have large personal war chests or are considered
novelties like Ralph Nader -- this leaves voters with few choices.
The secretaries of state should be seeking ways to open the ballot and to
loosen the grip that the two parties have on the national electoral process,
rather than fighting off the insurgents.
The states could start by making the two major political parties pay for
their primary elections and make all candidates follow the same petition
requirements to get on the ballot. In many states, independent candidates
are required to get significantly more people to sign their petitions than
their party-backed opponents.
And they need to change the rules that govern elections at the state level
and allow some of these reforms to be used in elections for national office.
Louisiana, for instance, holds one large primary in which voters choose
from among all candidates for a particular office with the top two -- regardless
of political party -- facing off in the general election.
Other states have experimented with weighted-voting systems in which voters
can cast more than one vote for a particular candidate. If there are five
open seats, for instance, voters could cast all five of their votes for
a particular candidate rather than be forced to either choose five or not
vote at all.
And there is the fusion system in place in states like New York, which allows
candidates to run on lines from more than one political party.
None of this will have much of an impact, however, if the influence of money
on the process cannot be limited. Candidates for national office in 1996
spent more than $800 million, not including the money spent by the sponsors
of the Democratic and Republican conventions that year, and significantly
more is expected to be wasted on the next presidential-year vote.
This kind of money means that candidates and office holders are forced to
spend most of their time fund raising and crafting special privileges for
their corporate patrons -- rather than developing and implementing policies
that will benefit average Americans. And it means that independents and
alternative-party candidates cannot effectively get their message out.
Various reforms have been floated, but those being taken the most seriously
will do little to change the ways things work. Comprehensive reforms are
needed that address the outrageous sums being spent while not minimizing
the very real First Amendment concerns being raised.
Providing free television time to qualified candidates -- provided the qualifying
bar is set low enough to allow independents to get on the air -- would be
A voluntary system of public funding would be better -- candidates would
get public funding and a large block of free TV and radio time in exchange
for promising to limit to smaller donors their intake of private contributions
and by capping their overall spending. This would level the playing field
for independents and remove the influence of large donors, while allowing
candidates an out if they do not want to play by the new rules.
These reforms might not make for a more orderly election system. But they
will open it up. And, after all, democracy is a messy business.
Hank Kalet is a writer living in South Brunswick, NJ.
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