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Who Wants To Be A Candidate?

Last week I pissed and moaned about posted a semi-comprehensive, semi-coherent analysis of the problems with our media as the first installment of my What's-Wrong-With-Our-Democracy trilogy-unless-I-think-of-some-other-stuff, and that set off an excellent discussion of possible remedies (which I have attempted to summarize back at my place).  This week, I want to focus on the very core of democracy and accountability, the electoral process itself… which is not entirely unrelated to the media, as you may have noticed.

There are three layers of problems with the electoral system, each one obscuring and distracting attention from the layer behind it.  The first and most obvious layer is the paperless voting machines, whose source code is as fiercely guarded as the machines themselves are not.  Their erratic output (usually in the Republicans' favor) has not inspired confidence during their brief tenure, but it is difficult to say conclusively how many election outcomes they have actually altered (at least one for sure).

Of course, the remedy for this one is very simple: ban paperless voting.  Individual states (more than I realized) have already moved on this, and Rush Holt (D-NJ) has introduced legislation to make it a federal requirement.  There's actually a good chance we could win on this one – the burning question is whether it will be in time for 2008.  Holt and other Democrats should not be reluctant to grandstand if Republicans attempt to block or delay electronic voting reform: force them to explain why they don't want our elections to be verifiable.

But electronic manipulation of votes (which I believe is risky enough to be a tactic of last resort), while very high-profile, pales in comparison to the active suppression of votes, through a myriad of legal and illegal dirty tricks: ex-con disenfranchisement and the voter roll purges it enables, ID requirements and other hurdles to the registration and voting process, strategic voting machine shortages in Democratic precincts, deceptive or threatening flyers and robocalls, phonejamming, intimidation by "poll watchers," and a whole host of others that I haven't thought of or don't know about.

Unfortunately, I think we're largely dependent on legislation here, too.  The grassroots/netroots can educate and try to counter the misinformation, can assist with registration and voting, but I just don't see any way we can counter voter purges or phonejamming or voting machine deprivation (we can provide snacks and drinks and maybe even umbrellas to people stuck in 3-hour lines, but I'm not sure that's enough).  The Obama/Schumer bill is a good start (I especially like the beefed-up penalties, but they're still not enough – election tampering should be a serious felony), but it doesn't go far enough.  All of these tactics need to be outlawed, so that everyone can vote if they're eligible, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

But all of these are merely issues with voting itself.  The biggest problem by far is not the limitations on our right to vote, but the limitations on who we can vote for.  The very structure of our electoral system protects the power of money and incumbency, and makes it extremely difficult for progressives to muster competitive campaigns at the national or statewide level.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more destructive to our electoral process than our current campaign finance system.  Thanks to the ever-increasing costs of saturation advertising, candidates are becoming more consumed with chasing money than chasing votes.  And most of that money is not coming from (financially) ordinary citizens like us, but from wealthy individuals, corporations, and industry PACs.  In the so-called "money primary," we don't get much of a vote.  And if, as the defenders of the status quo like to say, money equals speech, then we don't get much of a voice, either.  Our elections should not be decided by who can raise the most money; that's way down there on my list of Skills It Is Important For My Elected Officials To Have, unless they want to use their fundraising powers to start chipping away at the national debt.

In essence, the big spenders have become vote brokers, selling our votes, and the candidates are making deals with them instead of us.  And while some of the big spenders really are progressives, the majority prefer to donate to either incumbents or business- and wealth-friendly challengers.  Sure, you get the occasional self-funding multimillionaire, but most of those are not as progressive as Ned Lamont.

So, what to do?  I would love to see legislation to force the media to drastically lower their pricing for campaign ad placement (broadcast media in particular, since the government owns their airwaves), partly because it would dramatically reduce campaign funding requirements, and partly because, well, I just really hate the media.  I would also like to boost the public financing allowance to keep pace with campaignflation, and/or allow candidates to raise money to supplement it, rather than having to choose one kind of funding or the other.  Or, as long as we're talking about Things That Will Never Happen, how about a cap on how much money a candidate can spend, like the salary cap in football?

Of course, incumbents get to make the rules, so unless there is a huge, seat-threatening, throw-the-bums-out groundswell of demand for major campaign finance reform, or a steady infiltration by reform-minded progressives, it's hard to imagine the passage of any laws which might make it significantly harder to get re-elected.  So assuming we're on our own, what can we do?

To some extent, we're already doing a lot of it.  The good news is that netroots have both fundraising and message dissemination capabilities, through organizations like ActBlue (*waves at Howie*) and MoveOn, allowing us to give money to progressive candidates, while at the same time reducing their need for it.  The bad news is that although it has come a long way, our fundraising is still no match for what the elites can provide.  We've had our greatest impact on House races and a handful of targeted Senate races, but I fear we will be but a drop in the bucket in the presidential money chase.

We face an additional challenge as well. It is not enough for us to swing races: The Democratic party establishment has to recognize that we can swing races.  After our first big wave of success in 2006, the party establishment (and the Republicans) immediately spun the voters' repudiation of the war and embrace of progressive candidates as a victory for DLC-style centrism.  And as long as the DLC/K-Street Elite axis of the Democratic Party is allowed to take credit for electoral victories, they will continue to make their absurd claims that selling out the party's core values is totally worth it because it wins elections.  And since that is also the path of least resistance to getting the big corporate bucks, they will always be able to find a willing audience.  Until we break the DLC's back by providing a reliable alternative path to victory, we are always going to be second in the hearts of our party.

As before, please share whatever ideas you have on how we can improve the electoral system, or at least work around it.

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