Unrigging American Politics

on November 10, 2011 at 8:25 AM

There is a lot of frustration in America today. Income inequality is on the rise and opportunities to find good paying work are scarce. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this week found that over three-quarters of respondents believe the structure of the economy favors the rich. It seems many Americans think politics is rigged. They might be right. The cause, however, might be a surprise.

The cause is not elected officials, corporations, or the political parties. It is the national election system.

Endless campaigns and unlimited campaign finance have enabled collusion between government and special interest groups. The collusion has penetrated into virtually every policy and legislative area, including tax policy, financial regulation, healthcare reform, and government spending. Without reforming elections first, the public interest will continue to be undercut no matter who is elected into office or how many people protest in the streets.

Reforming the election system is no easy task. The Supreme Court has ruled that campaign finance is a form of free speech. Consequently, the Court has steadily eroded legislation to limit campaign finance. Lobbying and partisan divisions have stifled reform legislation as well.

Yet, it is incorrect to conclude because legislation has fallen short in recent years that elections cannot be changed.

The time is right for an amendment on election reform.”

The United States Constitution, as ratified, established an election system unacceptable today. Constitutional amendments have solved many injustices making improvements from the original document. A constitutional amendment, not legislation, is again the correct approach for modernizing the election system.

To amend the Constitution two-thirds of both chambers of Congress must pass the amendment before three-quarters of the states must ratify it. Few issues have this consensus of support. Election reform is one of them. A 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that over 70% of respondents across party lines supported Congressional limits on campaign finance. The time is right for an amendment on election reform.

A National Election Reform Amendment (NERA) would publicly finance national elections and limit the duration of campaigns. The intent is to level the playing field by taking away campaign finance as a means of influence. Elected officials would be freer to support the broader public interest when it opposes special interests.

Public funding for elections would end the bullying of elected officials with campaign finance. Time now spent raising limitless campaign funds would be spent on the people’s work or with voters. Primary elections would continue to be privately supported but have strict expenditure ceilings and transparency. Candidates winning primaries would each receive an equal amount of public financing for the general election, including a regionally adjusted stipend for media access.

Limiting the duration of election cycles would relieve elected officials of the constant pressures of their reelection. The American people have better things to do than to be bombarded by the national circus that is American politics. A Senate election, for instance, would be limited to three months for the primary followed by a general election of one month. Early campaigning would result in the forfeiture of public funds. Shorter elections would also encourage a greater number of high quality people to aspire for public office since it would require less time away from their careers and families.

It is highly unlikely two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, who cannot agree on anything, would agree on a NERA. Were the amendment to fail, a vote in support would become the kiss of death when it comes to reelection. Congress needs to be bypassed. There is a way for the states to initiate an amendment without Congress.

Under Article V of the Constitution, two-thirds of the state legislatures (34 states) can file petitions with Congress to hold a constitutional convention to draft a NERA. The states have used the convention method in the past to compel Congress to act.

In the early 20th century, the states almost held a convention to make the election of U.S. Senators occur through popular vote. When over thirty petitions from the States accumulated, and a convention became a real possibility, Congress finally passed this electoral change as the 17th Amendment. States petitioning Congress for a convention might well be the only way to convince Congress it should act on the question of election reform.

Elected officials today spend too much time fund raising and making ‘robo calls’ and too little time focused on the enormous challenges facing the nation. Only after election reform can men and women elected to office turn their attention toward getting the nation back on track and promoting the public interest.

James Windle is a federal employee who has worked for executive branch agencies, the Executive Office of the President, and Congress. The views and opinions of the writer are his solely and independent from the U.S. Government.