Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics


Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Tuesday February 6, 2007 at 4:18 pm)

Financing elections continues to be the source of serious concerns. Election ad spending alone was estimated at $1.6 Billion in the United States in 2004. Canadian elections have cost less, historically; but the most common concern isn’t the size of the spending — it’s the source.

Elections can’t cost, collectively, more than the relevant societies can afford. What is more dangerous than the size of spending is the possibility that spending can produce abuses. Leaving bribery aside, those who spend to support campaigns may make the recipients more open to their proposals. It can’t hurt to make yourself known to those who will be choosing suppliers, contractors, and other beneficiaries of government selection.

This danger, a mild form of influence but insidious abuse of public authority, is the target of most reforms. The primary aim of Canada’s recent electoral reforms was to make it harder for corporations to influence politicians in that way (although some have found loopholes). Now, two professors at Yale Law School have a new proposal.

The essence of the proposal is anonymity. By preventing politicians from knowing who funded their campaigns, influence will be significantly curtailed. This means establishing a neutral clearinghouse which accepts donations on behalf of parties and forwards them anonymously.

But politicians know, in general, who their supporters are — they’re the ones who come out to parties; the ones who they solicit for those donations; and the ones who call them regularly. In short, when donations are spaced out, and you know who’s contributing, you have a fairly keen notion of who gave what.

That’s why there’s another part of the proposal — a sort of masking provision. Every voter will be able to direct $50 in contributions, paid for by the clearinghouse organization, to a candidate of their choice. Larger individual donations will then be lost in a much larger collective tide of anonymous funding.

Sounds great? Not really. Let’s assume that the system does what it’s expected to and does it perfectly. What follows? One crucial question:

How do individuals faced with this $50 donation decide whom to support?

Doesn’t the quest for the money that can legally be spent on the election imply a previous competition for that money? Won’t the democratization of financing mean mass competition for those finances? Isn’t that just an election before the election? Who pays for that election?

Having to compete for what amount to “financing votes” isn’t very different from running in a primary election. That means that money and name recognition will be real advantages, two factors which undermine the democratic drive behind elections and electoral reform.

Even in a best case scenario, this proposal to overcome an insidious problem will only give wings to other problems. If anyone can find a way around the new restrictions (a likely outcome), the entire proposal becomes nothing more than a complicated way to add new problems to an already-belaboured process.

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