Voter Info Reform

January 3rd, 2009

I just read “How Should We Get Big-Money Influence Out of Congressional Elections?” on HuffingtonPost.com by Lawrence Lessig.  It inspired me to put down some thoughts I’ve had swirling in my head for several months.  I’m definitely not well-informed on this big-money influence isssue, but I believe Lessig is (blog and change.org), so I will answer the questions raised in his huffington post article as a way to convey what I want to say.  The following is expanded from my comment.

1) Reformers are considering a plan by which congressional candidates who raise a threshold number of small-dollar donations would qualify for a chunk of automatic funding – several hundred thousand dollars. If they accept this funding, they couldn’t raise big-dollar donations. But they could still raise contributions up to a certain amount (such as $100 or $250), which would be matched several-times-over by the central fund, an incentive for politicians to opt into this system and focus on small-dollar givers. What do you think of this general framework?

I think this is could be a good solution, but needs discussion. What would make candidates accept this or not? I assume those who do not accept either have more money or think they can raise more money than the plan would offer. Obama had hundreds of millions more to spend than McCain in 2008, helping him win. Could something similar happen with this plan, making this solution ineffective?


Voter Info Reform Plan

Part of the general problem is that candidates with the most money will always have an unfair advantage in reaching voters. So why not change the game so money becomes less important? The fact is voters don’t always know the truth about candidates, with partial truths and lies spread by campaigns or private interest groups. The more money a candidate has, the more times voters here that candidate’s message, whether it is the truth, a lie, a catch phrase, or whatever.

One solution would be to create a central, unbiased, voter information organization. It would have 2 mandates: promoting itself as the trusted authority on all candidate information; and disseminating said information on all candidates.

The first mandate could be accomplished by requiring all candidates to promote the voter info organization when they promote themselves.   For example, all tv ads must begin and end with a short message saying “As always, for complete and accurate information on candidates, goto vote.gov or call 800-123-4567”. The website would have more information and the phone number would let callers enter their address to receive printed information in the mail.  This ad sharing would have to be delicately balanced – vote.gov would need to be promoted clearly but not too much, the candidate still needs to get a return on putting money into the ad as well. This idea of sharing an ad is not new – it is similar to how all cigarette ads must contain the surgeon general’s warning, or how Intel-Inside ad campaign in 1990’s worked, where Intel would pay a percentage of any computer ad if the ad displayed the Intel-Inside logo.

The second mandate is to disseminate information in popular formats, primarily a website and some type of printed material like a small phone book. Examples of information to be disseminated would include basic facts on all candidates, such as political history, voting records, positions held, fundraising records, and known affiliations. It would also contain candidate submitted information on themselves such as where they stand on all the issues. It should also contain a fact resolution section, similar to factcheck.org.  This section could put claims into 3 groups: “verified facts” that candidates could promote if they wish, “unverified” for new or hard to prove claims, as well as a section for claims that were verified to be not true.  The fact resosution information should be disseminated in a way to promote candidates to make truthful claims about themselves and opponents, like by placing a truth meter or truth percentage next to each candidate’s profile indicating how many verified facts versus all others are found in their ads. Eventually people would learn to not trust anything unless it was a verified fact.  In the event a message is promoted containing late-breaking news, a response team must be available to address it quickly (such as Illinos governor’s arrest for attempting to sell Obama’s senate seat).  The website could also have a way for people to express themselves by answering polls, choosing candidates the intend to vote for, and unofficially voting on specific hot issues.

This solution would allow candidates to continue to reach voters, but equally promote a trusted and accurate voter information source. Fundraising would still occur in order to promote a candidate, although the balance mentioned above must be closely monitored.

Funding for the voter info organization could be funded the way suggested in (1). Another way to fund this would be to impose a fundraising tax – 10% of all money raised by candidates must go to this voter info organization, with the federal government funding if candidate fundraising doesn’t cover the costs of the organization (highly unlikely).

Now back to answering Lessig’s questions …

2) Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter sponsored a bipartisan bill last Congress that would make TV broadcasters pay a fee that would be the sole source of revenue for the central fund that candidates draw from. These broadcasters get access to our public airwaves for virtually free and make billions of dollars in revenue as a result. Under this scenario, no tax dollars would be used – eliminating the central talking point by reform opponents. What do you think about a fee on broadcasters to fund this reform?

A viable solution, but what if broadcaster’s funding falls below required levels? newspapers are going bankrupt and broadcasters revenues are declining as more people spend time on the internet.

3) “Public financing” was the old name for this issue – which would no longer be accurate if the Durbin/Specter proposal passed. And the name’s not that good anyway. What do you think we should call this reform? Clean elections? People-powered elections? Citizen-funded elections? People-funded elections?

The 2 key components being modified are fundraising and candidates. So how about “Candidate Fundraising Reform” ??

However, my proposal goes beyond just fundraising to include information, so how about “Voter Info Reform” ??

4) Barack Obama is on the record supporting the reform of presidential public financing. Some reformers want to pass presidential financing reform first, then pass a separate congressional bill down the road. Others want to merge the two bills and have one joint national debate. What do you think?

When just considering fundraising, presidential campaigns are a different beast due the magnitude of money involved ($600 million in obama’s campaign), so I think it should be handled differently. The next presidential election is 4 years out, but congress elections are less than 2 years, so congress should come first or they should be done together.

What do you think of my Voter Info Reform?


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