Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Money and democracy

So a first step - but only a first step - in limiting the corrosive effect of socio-economic inequalities on the content of democracy is to abolish private funding of election campaigns. Instead, all candidates for election (who might, to qualify, have to prove some threshold of minimum support through the gathering of signatures) would receive equal funding from the state.

The problem that arises here, however, is that the concentration of power in the central state could also pose a threat to democracy. The only (partial) safeguard against this that I have come up with is for whatever particular regime of equal political funding is established to be enshrined in constitutional law. This might reduce the risk of manipulation. (Another interesting idea is that, instead of banning private funding, the state would offer to fund any candidate forgoing private funding to the same tune as any privately-funded candidates.)

There are also questions as to the funding of non-party political activities, including those that don't necessarily relate directly to any election or referendum. But the principle is clear enough.

Allow me to raise a couple of other problems:
(1) In a setting in which two barely distinguishable political parties have dominated the political sphere (i.e., the U.S. and to a slightly lesser extent the U.K.), public funding alone will likely serve to further ossify that two-party dominance, which diminishes the opportunity for non-dominant party challenges or for that matter intraparty realignments.
(2) Do you propose at the same time public financing or other regulation of the process of demonstrating support through signatures? It seems to me that without regulation of the financing of that process, the very same corrosive effect arises, albeit in a slightly different context; it will just shift from the election to the ballot-qualification arena.
(3) The issue of non-party and non-candidate-controlled speech is a huge one. No regulation = dominance by those already in possession of substantial means. Draconian restrictions on private speech = substantial incursion on a necessary precondition for participarory democracy. All attempts thus far at regulation that falls in between (e.g., the U.s Federal Elction Campaign Act, as amended by the McCain-Feingold legislation) have contributed little but opportunities for evasion and perverse consequences.
I'm not sure about your point 1) since my scheme would give equal funding to all candidates (not just those of well-established parties) in a particular election. (Regarding intra-party dynamics, public funding could, potentially, weaken the power of central party bureaucracies by directly funding candidates and only allowing central party campaign expenditures from those funds, i.e. however much the candidate consents to give. Of course candidate selection might itself remain centrally controlled.)

As to point 2), I wouldn't envisage the signature-gathering threshold as a very daunting one. Rather it would merely function to eliminate time-wasters and scam-artists, to limit the costs to the taxpayer of public funding and to maintain manageable ballot papers. It shouldn't be hard for anyone with a bit of dedication and potential support to gather the signatures. I've no idea what percentage of the electorate would be appropriate, but I'd certainly think well under 1%.

Your point 3) is of course a very good one and I can't think of much to say about it other than that I wouldn't let it hold me back from abolishing (direct) private funding of political parties/politicians.
Thanks for the response. As you can see, I have little to offer on the No. 3 dilemma as well (apart from pointing out the obvious), and I've been involved in a good deal of campaign-finance litigation.
As for Nos. 1 & 2 I had rather assumed that the signature-colelction requirement would be more than token barrier to entry. That assumption was predicated on the (unstated) premise that that the state -- if only to avoid the potentially massive fiscal impact of financing a gazillion candidates who just manage to nose past the "waster" threshold -- would set the barreir pretty high. For a fine example of what looniness can ensue when the barrier is set very low, see the 2003 California recall debacle that involved voters' choosing among 135 candidates to succeed Davis (a list that included the former Diff'rent Strokes star Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey). That was, to be sure, an extreme case, in that the barriers were low indeed, but you can get the general idea from a glance at the ballot, here
I wonder why there were so many candidates for that recall vote - or is that normal for Californian gubernatorials? How many candidates would be on a typical state's ballot for a presidential election and what kind of hurdles have to be overcome to get on them?

Well? Answer me!

(By the way, does Sebatian Dangerfield comment at Crooked Timber or somewhere? The name is familiar.)
In answer to your first, the requirements for inclusion on the "Anybody but Gray" recall ballot were insanely minimal. All one needed was 65 signatures from any party and pay $3,500, or, alternatively, gather 10,000 signatures. I believe everyone on the ballot just ponied up the dough.
In aanswer to your second query, I have to say, "it depends." Ballot access laws vary from state to state (for reasons that elude me, regulation of the mechanics of elections is left to the states -- who sometimes kick it down to poitical subdivisions -- rathe rthan the federal government). Typically, a minor-party candidate has to gather many thousands of signatures. I don't know what the actual average number of candidates on a presidential ballot is, but my experience in a few elections in different jurisdictions is that there usually are about 5-7 candidates. Besides the two biggies, the Libertarian Party is usually on the ballot in more than 40 states; until the mid-80's, the CPUSA had presidential candidates on the ballot; and various Unidientified Flying Wackos also appear: the "Constitution Party," the "Natural Law Party," and others.
And finally, I sometimes post around CT and other sites. Mostly lurk. Found this site via McLemee, who I used to know in college.
You also might know the name from the great JP Donleavy nove, The Ginger Man, whence I swiped it.
Oh I certainly wouldn't approve of being able to waive the signature requirement via payment of money. It would have been interesting to see how many could have satisfied the 10,000 signatures requirement - presumably not 135!
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