Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The Importance of Clean Elections

I know I’m not the only person in South Dakota who’s a little bit less satisfied with our elected officials than he could be. With a few notable exceptions, they have a distinct tendency to pander to (often out-of-state) extremist political groups and big corporations.

Just look at Stephanie Herseth’s endorsement of the radical right-wing Federal Marriage Amendment during her campaign, which she later dropped the once she realized how much it appalled her base. Or consider Senator Daschle’s vote for President Bush’s pork-laden energy bill, which was thankfully defeated by a broad alliance of Democrats and Republicans who were opposed to deepening our record deficits with even more corporate welfare. On the topic of corporate welfare, consider Representative Herseth’s vote to cut corporate taxes by more than $140 billion at a time when the families of soldiers in Iraq have had to take up collections to pay for body armor. Even Governor Rounds’ bizarre decision to censor our public libraries has something to do with these unwholesome ties to big business and ideological extremists.

So, what’s the connection between these examples of political misbehavior? Access to money. They say the oldest rule in politics is “You got to dance with them what brung you,” and the sad fact is that ideological and corporate funds “brung” most of our elected officials to office.

Stephanie Herseth’s win in the recent special election has been trumpeted by the left-leaning press not as a victory for South Dakota, but as a triumph for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s fundraising abilities.

Tom Daschle, despite his off-stated fealty to “family farms,” receives major contributions from the agricultural megacorporation Archer Daniels Midland, which would have been one of the biggest recipients of taxpayer bailouts in the defeated energy bill.

Mike Rounds’ decision to override the unanimous decision of Rapid City’s library board to force the removal of family planning information at the request of the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese appears to be a cynical attempt to shore up his conservative base, very similar to President Bush’s suspiciously-timed support for the now-defeated Federal Marriage Amendment.

So that’s the problem. To win elections, our politicians need to forsake the needs of the majority of their constituents in an effort to appease big corporations and radical extremists, since those are the groups that raise the money. If only there was a solution!

Well, fortunately, there is a solution. For the last few years, Arizona and Maine have had “Clean Elections” laws on the books. These wonderful pieces of legislation require that all elections are publicly-funded at the same level, so that the candidate with the best ideas will win, not the candidate with the most money.

Of course, one has to worry that every oaf in the state will run for office, resulting in a drain on public resources and a confused political landscape. Fortunately, Clean Elections laws have an almost-perfect solution to this problem. In order to qualify for public funding, a candidate has to raise a significant amount of initial money from his or her neighbors in his or her own district in donations of no more than $5 per person, an amount that almost anyone can contribute. That way, no candidate will get public funds unless a good portion of that candidate’s constituency believes that he or she would be the right person for the job.

So, if you’d like South Dakota’s political campaigns to be about issues and ideas instead of elaborate fundraising schemes, write your state legislators and ask them why they haven’t introduced a Clean Elections law already.