August 12, 2003
Some have called the current campaign to recall the Governor of California a circus. Others have said it is democracy in a form more pure than we're normally accustomed to. I find nothing pure about this process.
In pure democracy, the voters get to know the candidates and the issues. Here we have the usual assortment of a handful of millionaires who will spend all that money to deliver scripted lines to the voters. Either the millionaires run themselves, or they give the money to a front-man who can deliver the lines for them. The voters hear, "F*** You, A**h***" and cheer like mad. The best script and the best actor get the prize.
We have an election where the best strategy is to avoid any issues and any specific solutions.
In a real democracy, it is the duty of the government to bear the costs of running a fair election. What those costs are depends on the scale of the election.
If a few of us are going to lunch, we hold an election which goes: "Let's go to Cici's", "No, how about Moira's", "OK", "OK", "OK". It does not cost anything because we carry out this conversation while walking toward the car.
It is about the same if we have a club with half a dozen members and we decide we need an officer such as a treasurer: "Will you do it?", "No, how about you?", "Well, I guess so", "Any objections?"
If the club is a little bigger, you might have a meeting and have each of the candidates say a few words to the group before the vote. Now the cost of the election includes the donuts and coffee. It includes the time taken for the meeting. It includes any prorated cost of the meeting venue.
If the club is bigger, you might require that advance notice of the meeting be mailed to all members. You might have a nominating committee. You might have candidates submit written bios. You might mail out ballots in advance and set up a method for absentee voting. The costs start to go up.
With a small group, everyone knows everyone else. You don't have to do much to inform the voters. Once you have a big organization, the organization must work hard to get the messages from the candidates to the voters. If the organization doesn't do so, it is not running a fair election.
When you get to an election with several million voters, the costs are quite substantial. It is the duty of the government, not millionaires wanting to buy influence, to bear these costs.
Putting candidate statements in the sample ballot is a good start, though we only do this for certain offices. We could do better, perhaps allowing replies to arguments as we do on ballot propositions. Sample ballots could also contain contact info for each candidate, including snail and e-mail addresses, phone number and web site. We currently do this for some races but not others. A government web site could also be maintained with convenient links to all candidates (smartvoter.org manages to approximate this, but lacks info on many candidates).
We can bring back the fairness doctrine and equal time rules, as they once existed. As part of giving a company exclusive access to broadcast or cable bandwidth, require them to give time to all candidates and viewpoints. This is simply part of their fee for getting an exclusive deal. They can buy/sell the public service time requirements, as long as they still allocate any public service time they have in a fair and equal manner (thus you can't "sell" your time for Democrats to another network while retaining the public service time for Republicans -- you must give equal time to all within your public service time requirement).
If we make it so easy for any candidate, no matter how poor, to get an *effective* message to voters, it won't matter if someone else spends a billion dollars on getting an equally effective message out.
Finally, we should declare it to be prima facie evidence of bribery to give any money or service to a candidate or public official without evidence that you received something of comparable value in return other than political favors.
The electoral system we have now is not democracy. It is plutocracy.
Richard M. Mathews
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