Politicians love it when scandals that question the legitimacy of our election system arise. Because of the high demand for immediate action created by such scandals, they can craft incumbency protection schemes while selling the public on the “virtues” of the proposed solutions. You don’t believe that politicians are that conniving? Let’s review two examples.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 – portions of which are up for renewal this year – contains a section that doubles as both a method of ensuring minority representation in Congress and protecting incumbents. Section five of the act stipulates that new redistricting plans (crafted by state legislatures) cannot reduce the number of minority voting districts. This clause has served both political parties very well.
When Democratic state legislators redraw Congressional districts, their goal is to pack the minimal amount of minorities necessary to create a majority-minority district while distributing the rest of the minority voters in suburban districts. Thus, the section five requirement is met, and Democratic candidates have better odds of winning in predominately Republican suburbia.
The Republican strategy has always been to pack as many minorities into as few Congressional districts as possible, leaving the rest of the districts safely in Republican hands. You need only look at the Congressional district map of Michigan to see the realization of this strategy.
The 2001 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (you know it better as McCain-Feingold) drew upon public concerns over the “appearance of corruption” with many politicians in Washington. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) blamed the corruption on all the money floating around in town that just so happens to find its way into the coffers of politicians. They concluded the campaign-finance system, not the greedy politicians, was at fault.
What came out of BCRA was the largest infringement of free-speech rights since the Alien and Sedition Acts. Your right to speak freely on behalf of a candidate – yes, money is speech – is limited to $4,000 per household per federal candidate. If you wish to advertise for or against a candidate, you better hire a lawyer to comply with all the restrictions BCRA put in place.
I spent last semester in Washington D.C. interning in the United States Senate, and one of the first structural aspects I noticed was the amount of time off the Senate calendar affords its members. But instead of using that time to talk to constituents, senators have to spend the vast majority of it at fundraisers. The fundraising restrictions of BCRA gave every member of the Senate a reason to request more time off because without even medium-sized donors (five-figure donors), reaching your fundraising goal requires more time.
No government or politician can say with a straight face that they believe in protecting political freedom while voting for the regulation of the contents, timing and funding of campaign advertisements for freely assembled groups. But this goes to the heart of the politician’s motives and the voter’s priorities: “You don’t like all those political advertisements clogging up your ‘Will & Grace’ time? I’d be happy to take care of that for you.”
We can still take steps toward bringing accountability back to the federal government without losing our right to free speech. The most immediate step is to urge elected representatives not to renew the Voting Rights Act. The provisions that protect against the second coming of Jim Crow are already permanent, and too many of the renewable provisions are being used by politicians for alternative reasons.
Next, we should organize, state by state, a mass referendum that would take the power to redraw Congressional districts away from those who have clearly abused it. Iowa currently utilizes a system, passed through referendum, whereby an independent body redraws the Congressional districts after each census. Incidentally, Iowa is home to some of the closest Congressional contests.
Finally, we need to repeal all of BCRA (the appearance of corruption is not corruption itself). We have plenty of institutions – the most important being the media – that can hold scandal-ridden politicians accountable. We should be allowed to contribute as much as we like to candidates for federal office on the condition the candidate updates his publicly accessible website every night with the name of and amount contributed by each contributor. Any large donations that warrant scrutiny would most surely be noted by the Fourth Estate.
Only then can we finally enjoy democracy’s full potential – free, open and accountable.
Stiglich can be reached at email@example.com.