Salvaging our elections process

It has long disturbed me that the people we “elect” to national office often aren’t the best qualified or most representative of the will of the people they represent, but instead seemingly the ones who manage to get their names and faces out in front of people the longest. This implies that our politicians spend the majority of their time chasing and then spending money…not exactly the scions of fiscal responsibility we want in control of our budget.

A friend suggested to me that in the UK, they cap campaign spending and have a limited time set for campaigning, and that these would be excellent rules to implement here. I don’t know what the UK system is exactly, but I have my own thoughts on how this would work out. I also came up with a third condition that I think would maximize effectiveness.

  1. Make all campaigns, and candidates, transparent

    The first step is to ensure that the public has free and easy access to the same information about all candidates. This should include things like a campaign’s budget, and which companies or lobby groups have donated to the campaign. (Private citizens’ donations would remain private, unless they passed a certain percentage of the campaign funding cap.)

    This should also include things like a candidate’s resume–past offices and jobs held, voting history in context. This should not include things like a candidate’s “stance on the issues”, as these are not reliable measures and are often nothing more than editorializing or, at worst, pandering. Nor should this include any analysis. The raw data should be presented in ways that makes it easy for people of various learning types to understand, but the greatest efforts should be made to keep that data pure and complete. People should be able to use that data to make their own decisions.

    Designing this data presentation interface would be the greatest user experience project in the history of America. Determining what data to include and maintaining that data would be some of the most important work in this country, as it would literally allow democracy to function.

    Once the interface was designed, various vendors could work with the API to allow users to interact with the data in public libraries and in their own homes. The Xbox Kinect, for example, could help kinetic learners. Obviously, this interface would also need to take accessibility questions into account.

    This data would need to be protected just as the internet itself is protected.

    The media would have access to the data just as average citizens would, and they would be perfectly within their First Amendment rights to provide their own analysis of it, and add their own original reporting. However, they should be required to make it clear where the data ends and their own analysis and reporting begins.

  2. Put a cap on campaign funding

    Rather than simply limiting what candidates can spend, I would limit how much money a candidate can raise for an election at all. Currently, some donations aren’t used for a specific election, but are saved for a later time. I would require that all funds raised during the election period be limited to a certain amount and then spent on that election. Any money left over would then be split equally among those who had donated, at the expense of the campaign fund. An outside accountant would oversee this process. There would be no donating to a politician’s campaign in the middle of the year, only during election time.

    The purpose here is not to further distance candidates from the concept of long-term financial planning, but to make it easier for candidates who were not born into wealth or prestige to have a shot at getting elected. Ideally, campaign planning would become so dissimilar to the national budget (and so compartmentalized and short-term by comparison) that it would not interfere with an elected public servant’s understanding or take his or her attention away from the true purpose of office.

    While this would not completely level the candidate playing field, it would eliminate the gross advantage certain candidates enjoy solely due to their personal wealth. Rich candidates could still run, of course, but they would be limited to using the same amount of money as other candidates. Instead of having the enormous advantage of being a major candidate through no personal merit, they’d simply have the lesser advantage of not having to spend time seeking donations.

    As all campaigns would be transparent, people would know when a candidate was reaching his or her funding cap, and therefore they could stop donating in time for the candidate not to have to deal with refunding a lot of money.

  3. Limit campaign activities to a defined campaign period

    Currently, our elected officials are campaigning year-round. They’re thinking about re-election at all times, seeking out more and more campaign money, concentrating more on keeping their jobs than on taking care of their work. Capping campaign funding solves half of that problem. The other half would be solved by prohibiting any election activity outside of a defined election time.

    Our presidential election process is the best example of how long and exhausting an election process can get. By the time voters head to the polls (or not), they’re already tired of the election. They may have tuned it all out. They may simply vote along party lines. They may be frustrated over the political grandstanding and wondering where, exactly, the candidates really stand.

    Setting a short, defined period for campaigning, and prohibiting candidates from participating in any campaign-related activities outside of that period–fundraising, answering interview questions about elections, sending out campaign fliers and such–would eliminate campaign fatigue and also force candidates to get down to the meat of matters rather than switching up their “stances” based on opinion polls. Put some teeth in this one: any candidate found to be engaged in any campaign activity outside of the campaign period should be ineligible to run in the next election.

    This doesn’t mean that candidates wouldn’t be able to discuss issues. It’s imperative that they be able to do that. But they should do so in a way that makes it obvious their goal is to help the country, not their own agendas. This would probably be the hardest thing to enforce, so I would recommend against trying. (These are politicians, after all.) Only overt campaign activities would result in an election ban.

    There should also be some sort of punishment for any media organization that tries to trap a candidate into answering a question that would make him or her ineligible. Maybe a severe fine.

    I don’t support the idea of a state-run media at all. While I believe there is some severe corruption in the news media right now, I don’t think the solution would be for the government to strictly regulate the media. There has to be room for the media to operate for its true and just purpose: journalism. At the same time, though, there are certain media behaviors, such as favoring one candidate over another candidate, or ignoring certain candidates completely, that are too troublesome to ignore. I am hoping that the steps I’m outlining here to change the election process would have the effect of changing how the media approaches elections. I’m not prepared at this time to forbid the media from discussing an election outside the defined election period. That seems way too Big Brother-y. I would hope, rather, that once citizens knew they could get all the information they needed during the election period, they wouldn’t really want the media to be constantly projecting who was going to run and who might be the winner from those who might be running…and they’d say so. And then, finally, a presidential election might not last for three years.

  4. Require all candidates to take a governance test

    Give all candidates a test at the same time, at the beginning of the election period, once all candidates had announced for a position. The first part of the test would be multiple choice, a mix of questions about American history, American government, economics, world history and politics, and basic math. The second part would require candidates to answer an essay question about a current national issue. This would not be a “what is your stance” question, but a “what specific steps would you take in this specific scenario” question.

    Arrangements would be made for candidates to take the test in a way that matches their learning styles. An aural learner could have a proctor read the test to them, for example. The test would be made as accessible as possible to all candidates.

    Candidates would not be required to pass this test to run for office. However, the tests would all be publicly available pieces of a candidate’s data, easy for citizens to retrieve and evaluate. The media would of course also have access and be able to pick each candidate’s answers apart.

    This should give the candidates plenty of impetus to spend the time outside the campaign period making sure they have actual knowledge that will assist them in governance.

  5. Eliminate PACs and Super PACs

    I figured this went without saying, but then I figured I’d better say it anyway. There would be no point in limiting a candidate’s campaigning without doing this.

I foresee many things changing, should all these conditions be met. With elected officials no longer spending the bulk of their time on campaigning, actual governing should improve. The thought of this would appeal to those members of Congress who actually do want to govern properly, and just don’t have the time. I think there would be enough support for this kind of reform even within government that it could go through. The hardest part would be creating the data interface, since nothing like this has ever been done before.

Once this system was in place, we would start to see a lot of new faces in politics, and I think the constant refresh would do a world of good. We would also see more of a focus on actually running the country, and less on the power and prestige of being a long-term member of Congress. Maybe the newer, more civic-minded members would think about how members of Congress are treated differently by the law than regular citizens are, and maybe they would start to change that.


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