Election Reforms

by , 2003

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both." -- James Madison ("Focus" 1)

The United States has strived to be a true democracy, a place in which the citizens are free to govern themselves, since its inception. For a democracy to work, the citizens must remain knowledgeable and elections must remain unbiased. Our current system of electing presidents fails in both of these regards: citizens are only given two choices that stand any chance of winning and their decisions between those two candidates are influenced not by knowledge, but instead by what they have seen on thirty second television commercials. In order to break up the complete political monopoly the Democrat and Republican Parties have on the United States, we as Americans need to reform our presidential elections so that third party and independent candidates have a legitimate chance of holding offices and so that citizens are able to vote on the candidates based on their political beliefs rather than on their ability to fundraise and advertise. Similar reforms should be made to the elections for other offices as well at the federal, state and local levels. The ideas and arguments presented in this paper can be applied to American elections in general although, because of the small scope of this paper, they only speak of the presidential elections.

A candidate cannot legitimately compete in modern American elections without being able to finance a huge television advertising campaign. Commercials have become an integral part of our election process, leaving candidates without huge financial resources with virtually no chance of becoming elected. In 1996, an estimated $400 million was spent on television airtime alone by presidential candidates and that number is predicted to rise 150% to $600 million in the 2004 elections (Associated Press 1). The majority of this money is spent by the two largest political parties. Candidates backed by smaller parties and independent candidates cannot afford the huge cost of television advertising. By banning television and radio advertising, as they have done in France, we would allow candidates who cannot afford commercials would to legitimately compete in the elections (Basham 1).

In addition to making elections too expensive for smaller candidates, the use of thirty second television commercials as campaign tools has shifted the focus of campaigns from positive plans for the future to simply offering negative claims about the other candidates. False claims run rampant in commercials because their is no mediator overlooking them. The networks will air virtually anything as long as the airtime is paid for. Although there are legal steps that opposing parties can take to stop false advertising, it takes days or weeks to get a commercial taken of the air. During that time, millions of people will have seen it and most will have accepted it as truth. The best defense against false allegations in commercials has become creating more commercials to counter-attack. Of course, all this takes money that candidates do not have unless they are backed by huge political parties. And, there is no one overseeing the counter-attacks either so they are just as prone to be filled with false arguments. Even if all the commercials only presented accurate information, they would still be limited by their small time constraints and would be unable to explain how candidates feel about important issues. Polls taken in 2000 just days before the presidential elections "found that more than 50 percent of respondents couldn't answer simple questions about Bush's stance on gun control, abortion, and taxes, or Gore's position on Social Security, school vouchers, and affirmative action" (Donnis 1). People weren't voting for the presidential candidates because of their stances on important issues. Television commercials do a great job of increasing exposure of the candidates, but their extremely short length limits them from containing any substantial information about the important characteristics of the candidates. Even if a commercial quickly lists the candidate's views voters still have relatively little conception of what the candidate believes in. The important issues that our candidates face today are not black and white issues and thirty second television commercials hardly have enough space to tackle the gray areas. The elimination of television advertising would, in addition to giving third-party and independent candidates a more legitimate chance of competing, prevent voters from making their decisions based on commercials that are often inaccurate and do not provide enough substantial information.

If television and radio commercials were banned, where would voters find out information about the candidates? Newspaper and internet advertisements would still be available options for candidates. Because of the larger available space in these media candidates would be able to highlight their stances on important issues rather than just exposing their faces again and again. An overseeing committee would need to be created to verify claims made in the advertisements before they are published. The lower cost of newspaper and internet advertising, third party and independent candidates would have a more equal chance in the elections. Spending limits would be created to further equalize the possibilities of the candidates to win. In addition to paid advertising, candidates would be able to voice their opinions on the important issues during televised debates that invite all the candidates running for office to participate, not just the top two. Of course, there would still be a minimum number of signatures that each candidate must collect before being placed on the ballot (and the number of signatures required would be on a national basis, not state-to-state as it is now, for federal elections) to limit the debates to legitimate contenders. More interest in the debates would probably come from the elimination of other sources of information about the candidates; when voters no longer think that they know who to vote for because of commercials, they will look to the debates for information on the candidates.

Because of the high cost of television advertising and the important role that commercials have come to have in elections, it is becoming more and more important that candidates raise huge amounts of money for their campaigns. Limits on the amount and source of campaign contributions do currently exist, but stricter controls are needed in order to create free elections. Current law states that candidates cannot receive money directly from corporations, but the corporations are allowed to create political action committees that are free to raise money and influence the elections (Targonski 1). By the time candidates are elected to office, they owe so many people and corporations favors that they are unable to keep what is best for the people in mind. Eliminating television and radio advertising would do a great deal to decrease the importance of fundraising in campaigns. Still low spending limits would need to be created to allow candidates represented by smaller, less-funded parties to have a chance at winning elections. More importantly, federal matching of funds raised that currently entrenches the power hold of the two biggest parties needs to be eliminated. Currently, the federal government will match contributions from individuals to a political party with a candidate running for office if that party was able to raise $5,000 in donations in 20 different states (1). Of course, only the two biggest parties are going to meet this requirement, and therefore, they will be the only ones receiving federal aid. The government gives further grants to cover election expenses and political conventions, but the strict requirements almost always restrict all parties, except for the Republican and Democratic parties, from receiving them. Setting lower spending limits and eliminating federal matching of donations and grants would further help to allow independent and third-party candidates to become elected.

A final step that needs to be taken in order to make American presidential elections more democratic is the replacement of the vote by the electoral college with a popular vote. In 2000, Al Gore received almost half a million more votes than George W. Bush, but was not elected president (CNN 1). Since we were kids, we have been told the importance of going to the polls because every vote matters. But, as the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words; when citizens see that their choice for president is not elected even though he had almost half a million more votes than the next competitor, they will realize that their votes really do not matter. In addition, use of the electoral college to elect the president results in campaigns virtually ignoring certain states, such as Colorado which is seen as a Republican state. Finally, the electoral college further works to block third-party and independent candidates from winning offices. Although there were over 3.8 million votes for candidates other than Gore and Bush in 2000, they received 0 electoral votes (1). The almost four million people who voted for Nader, Buchanan, Browne, or any of the other candidates were shown that their votes did not matter. Their candidates received 0% of the electoral vote even though they received 4% of the popular vote. Giving the power to elect presidents to the people as a whole through a popular vote would make the elections more fair and democratic.

These changes need to be made if our country wants to be a true democracy. Without knowledge, voters can not adequately choose which candidates to vote for. By eliminating television and radio advertising and closely monitoring newspaper and internet advertising, we would return focus of elections from fundraising and marketing skills to candidates' qualifications and political beliefs. Closer regulation of fundraising would further reduce its importance in the election process. Finally, replacing the electoral college with a popular vote would give the people more control over who is representing them in political offices. All of these changes will give third-party and independent candidates a more legitimate chance and winning elections and holding office. Ending the monopoly on political power that the Democrats and Republicans hold in this country would allow candidates with fresh ideas and new ways of dealing with old problems to take office. Through these new representatives, our government will become healthier and better able to adapt to today's changing political environment.

Works Cited

Basham, Patrick. "The Illiberal Reality of European-Style Campaign Reform." http://www.cato.org/dailys/03-13-02.html.

Donnis, Ian. "In Whose Interest?" http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/other_stories/multi-page/documents/02552297.htm.

Targonski, Rosalie. http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/archive/elect00/primer.htm.

"Focus - Freedom of Press and Information." http://usembassy.state.gov/islamabad/wwwhircalert0702.html

Associated Press. http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/e1598.htm.

CNN. http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2000/results/.