Using Campaign Dollars to Support Democracy

Given the results of this weeks mid-term elections I am re-blogging a post from earlier this year

The battle to restrict big-ticket campaign contributions seems to have been lost. Perhaps there is a way to put some of this money towards supporting our democracy

I am waiting for the phone to ring. I’m a supporter of the Democrats and as of Friday my money is needed. The inevitable entry of Scott Brown to the New Hampshire Senatorial race will significantly up the cost of the election. In fact, the number whispered to me was $30 million. In 2008, the winner, Senator Shaheen polled just over 350,000 votes. Assuming that most of the electorate has already decided, that $30 million will be spent swaying 30,000 voters.

We should have the donors just write checks to the undecided and eliminate the need for a campaign.

Our American concept of representative democracy is under threat.

There are two primary threats to our democracy. First is the way we finance campaigns. America is the only major democracy that allows substantial contributions directly to candidates and indirectly to Political Action Committees. We are living in a pay-to-play system dominated by the super-rich, large corporations, and labor unions. Private equity pioneer Tom Perkins recently stated in an interview seen on CNN Money, “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?”

The second threat is declining voter participation. Participation levels are as low as 55 percent in Presidential elections, with much lower turnout in off-year elections. For example, in 2013’s special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, for example, just 25 percent of eligible voters voted.

This combined with the way we finance campaigns leaves a small group defining and selecting who governs us. This is a significant challenge to the preservation of our democracy, and indeed to the greatness of our nation.

I propose that we use one threat to solve the other. Instead of restricting campaign contributions, which would take a constitutional convention, let’s tax them and use the revenue to create a dedicated fund to educate voters and drive up voter participation rates. This tax should be in the 30-50 percent range on all money spent by anyone on political speech, including self-funded candidates. There would be no exceptions. This would help ensure a level playing field.

Before screaming about more taxes or the fact that this will violate the right to free speech, just think about the possible impact.

First, a tax may give pause to some donors. Too much money invades our political process from a small group of people. If a tax slows the flow, then all the better.

Second, tax revenue spent on voter participation would have the most effect on voters having different views than those of the high-dollar donors. According to the US Census Bureau, voter turnout for individuals earning over $150,000 is almost 75 percent. For those with incomes under $30,000 it’s 45 percent. Using political donation taxes to fund voter participation and education programs will help restore balance to our political process without restricting political speech.

The money raised by taxing political contributions, which would amount to billions of dollars during a Presidential election year, could be used in at least three ways:

First, I would fund the teaching of civics in all public schools. Amazingly this isn’t part of the regular curriculum in most schools. People need to know how our system works for them to want to be involved. The good news is that there are groups that provide civics education. These organizations are small and dependent on private largess. Tax revenue would facilitate a broader rollout.

When I was in school perhaps most important was learning about our process of government: the three branches of government; the division between state and federal responsibilities; and the essential fact that Americans lived in a representative democracy. This was and remains central to our belief that we are the greatest nation in the history of mankind,

Next, we could use the funds for non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Instead of having campaigns roust their perspective voters, there should be a bipartisan effort to get everyone to vote. Thanks to studies by behavioral scientists, we have much more effective and less expensive ways to get people to vote. This includes helping people plan their voting (where will you vote, when will you vote) through commitment devices and making individuals voting habits public, which levers individuals’ sense of social responsibility.

Finally, the dedicated tax revenue should be used to provide tax credits to those who vote. Give every voting age American a tax credit. This idea also comes from the field of behavioral science. Give voters enough tax incentive to take action, but not enough to be too costly, say $50. If people vote, they keep the credit. If they don’t, they lose the credit. We know that people dislike losing money more than they enjoy gaining the same amount of money. This should provide a strong incentive to the potential electorate.

Our democracy is suffering. My proposal is not a panacea to what ails America. However, if we can increase voter participation by even just 10 percent, funded from some of the more egregious campaign finance abuses, it would serve to offset some of the imbalances that have grown significantly in the past 30 years.

I am certain of one thing: if corporations and labor unions don’t like this proposal, then I am certain that I am on the right track.

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