Campaign finance reform is always on the periphery of politics, but not because the politicians in power want to change the very system that they have carefully constructed to maintain the status quo. Rather, these reforms are trotted out every so often as a means of placating the public, to assure us that our elected officials are making every effort to stay noble to the cause of public service while avoiding possible conflicts of interest with potential donors. The truth is that campaign finance is a sham, a game played by the wealthy corporations and the individuals that run them. Our system of funding candidates and elections is nothing more than a shell game run by charlatans. Despite the large number of complex regulations currently applied to campaign financing, the fact of the matter is that the system has been brutally finessed by those who seek access to power and have the money to buy it.

A primary cause for voter apathy is the fact that most political candidates do not represent the average citizen. It is hard to get enthusiastic about electing as your representative to the lawmaking halls of society someone with whom you have no common connection or point of view. The average citizen is not born in a wealthy family. They are not universally educated at the most expensive universities. They do not have six figure incomes, luxury boats, or domestic servants. Now take a look at the average politician at the federal and state levels of government. Most are millionaires, from well off families, living a life more luxurious than their countrymen. For people in this position, it becomes difficult to imagine, let alone empathize with, the life of ordinary people. But the costs associated with running an election, even a relatively small local contest, is beyond the means of most citizens who would likely take a shot at being involved if only they could afford the price of admission. What we end up with is the usual slate of candidates, well connected to the established political machines and corporate donors, offering little real choice for voters who crave change. For those left in the game (for that’s what it has truly become) the commencing battle becomes less one of ideas than one of wallets. The only winners are the corporations themselves, giving money for access and getting it back threefold or more when their candidate gets in. They play the odds and support both sides, so they’re always guaranteed a victory. And while it may be technically illegal under today’s laws for corporations to donate to a candidate directly, the spirit of the campaign finance laws are always circumnavigated by the crafty legal teams hired by the corporations and wealthy individuals who think that their great wealth gives them the right to rule the world.

Real reform is what we need if we are going to have a shot at getting our government back from the corporate interests who dominate the halls of legislation these days. We must leveling the playing field for candidates and lower the costs of running a campaign. First, we must enact tight spending limits on all campaigns including the amount of money a candidate (or their campaign committee) can collect. This will have the effect of reducing the amount of money donated, thereby reducing the inequity of influence by donors. Limits can be based on a cost per voter formula, costs per week of campaigning, or other such assessment. Second, we much put a cap on the amount of money an individual can donate to a campaign and eliminate any kind of collective corporate, union, or PAC donation drives. This cap could be tiered for each level of government, with a lower threshold set for local elections up to a maximum of $1,000 per person in federal elections. This regulation would have the effect of removing inappropriate influence from single entities contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a campaign, in effect buying a candidate. It would also give individuals greater control over their own political dollars by eliminating de facto political contributions culled from membership dues and other collective, but not necessarily elective, mandatory costs. Third, we must limit the number of weeks that active campaign advertising can take place, both for a primary run-off and a general election. By reducing the length of campaign advertising to within a month before a primary or general election, we would not only force candidates to spread their message through actually meeting and talking with constituents, we would reduce the costs of campaigning by reducing the amount of advertising that would be purchased.

Next, we must mandate that commercial broadcasters (who currently have practically free reign of the publicly owned airwaves and broadband spectrums) provide free political advertising for all candidates in a general election and token rates for all candidates in a primary election. These businesses exist at the good will of the Congress, with a stated obligation to use their frequencies for the public good. It is arguable that television shows are somewhat to blame for the dumbing down of Americans, so merely running their regular programming, laced with commercial messages, doesn’t really satisfy the obligation. Mandating political advertising concessions would be a small price for these companies to pay for the privilege of growing rich on the publics back. In return, broadcasters could be free to charge whatever rate they could command for any private political ads, provided they are issue oriented and contain no reference to a specific candidate. Such soft-money ads are often just a front for a candidates political assassin squad, but eliminating their ability to discuss anything but a particular public issue, without mentioning a candidates name or position, would remove some of their persuasive power, at least so far as demonizing a candidate is concerned, and would make the public learn about a candidates views by talking to them instead of relying on sound bites.

Fifth, limit political party contributions to candidates, making would-be politicians focus their energy on meeting the citizens and raising money through them. Political party funds could instead be used to pay for bipartisan (or multi-partisan) election commissions who would monitor, organize, and validate election results, prepare voter informational materials and cover the hard costs of having an election. And finally, each level of government should establish a specific fund that would pay the living costs of the non-incumbent, local and state candidates during the general election campaign cycle, up to a certain amount. This would allow people who have public service in their blood the ability to make a run for office without having to lose their home or have their kids go hungry while they were on the campaign trail. We’re not talking about extravagant funds, but enough to make the bills while standing up for election.

When it comes to the candidates themselves, there are several ways we can reduce the costs associated with entering politics, and reduce the probability of improper influence peddling through political contributions. First, we should remove any regulations that allow a prospective candidate to purchase their way on to the ballot. In many areas, in order to qualify for a primary ballot, you must collect a significant number of signatures from people living in the district you wish to represent. Or you can just pay a fee, usually more than a thousand dollars for federal or state office, and several hundreds for many local races. Those with the money just pay the fee, bypassing the whole “connect with the common man” element that signature gathering fosters. But the number of signatures is usually next to impossible for a working person who can’t afford to pony up the dollars to get in the door. Level the playing field here and you’ll get more people who look like the voters. Let’s remove the “fee option” and reduce the total number of signatures required to get on a primary ballot.

Also, we
should prohibit all elected officials from soliciting donations prior to three months before an election. They are not supposed to be campaigning during their terms anyhow. It is hard to govern when you spend all your time begging for money. That, and the fact that their incumbency should give them an upper hand in collecting campaign funds would reduce their exposure even more to those who would try to buy influence. First time candidates could get and extra month or two to raise funds and build name recognition. At the end of an election, all campaign funds not used would go to the national campaign fund or be divided by the prominent political parties for use in the next election cycle. Presidential candidates would have somewhat larger collectible donation thresholds and longer campaign periods simply due the size of a national constituency.

The final piece of the puzzle is the administration of swift and harsh punishment for politicians or political professionals who violate the public campaign finance laws. If found guilty of gaming the system for their benefit or for another person’s benefit, they should be dealt with as treasonous individuals who would subvert our government for their own selfish gain. The rules should be clear and simple, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Any efforts to bypass the spirit of the law should also be dealt with by banishing the offender(s) from public political aspirations. Such unbending resoluteness against any corruption may be just the deterrent needed to help end the abuse and usher in Common Sense reform.