Public Campaign Financing Tricky Element of Anti-Corruption Initiative—Cue Dr. Lessig!

John Tsitrian thinks the South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act, coming soon to a petition near you, is a good idea. The Rapid City blogger says the bipartisan leadership of the committee promoting this ballot initiative reflects the frustration of many South Dakotans in both parties “with the influence of big money, generally, and the lackluster attention to ethics in South Dakota, specifically.” Tsitrian cites our Legislature’s failure to dig into the EB-5 scandal as an important driver of this initiative and the support it will get from the voters.

However, Tsitrian says the initiative could founder on one of its key provisions—public financing of political campaigns:

Much as I like transparency, contribution limits, disclosures to the max and the general thrust of meaningful reform–and much as I’m willing to engage in some discussion and consideration of public financing for candidates–I think inserting that element into this proposed amendment is a poison pill. It’s all very frustrating to me because without that clause, this effort has a real chance.  As it is, much of the discussion about it will focus on the public financing aspect, which is gratuitous and essentially irrelevant to the broader reforms set forth by the writers. That discussion is likely to torpedo this otherwise outstanding vessel for real reform in South Dakota politics [John Tsitrian, “The Anti-Corruption Law Proposed for South Dakota? I’m Supportive. I’m Hopeful. I’m Dubious,” The Constant Commoner, 2015.07.16].

As usual, Mr. Tsitrian raises a valid concern. Saying “politicians are corrupt” and “let’s give politicians tax dollars” in the same petition creates a little cognitive dissonance. Supporters can explain how public financing for campaigns fits into the overall scheme of fighting big money, but that explaining won’t be as quick or easy as it will be for the defenders of corruption and Big Money to shout, “Tax and Spend! Tax and Spend! Waaaahh!”

Among the explainers for public campaign financing is Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who tried to help Rick Weiland win our Senate seat last year with a million dollars from his transparent, small-donor super-PAC. Lessig advocates the very voucher system for public campaign financing that Weiland and friends are proposing for South Dakota.

Lessig acknowledges that voters are leery of public financing for candidates, but he says such a system would fit our values and our gut desire to fight the corruption of politics by big money:

You’re right that most Americans don’t embrace the idea of public funding. But, again, if 80 percent of Americans think that every proposed reform advanced by insiders is about benefitting themselves, then it’s not surprising that people are wary when those insiders talk about using tax funds to fund their campaigns.

But if we could cement a recognition of the need for fundamental change, then I think there are ways to present this that most Americans, especially on the right, would sign up for right away. When I talk about vouchers — taking the first $50 dollars of everybody’s taxes and returning it to them in the form of a voucher that they could give to candidates who agree to fund their campaigns with vouchers and contributions that are capped at, say, $100 dollars — it appeals to every instinct that ordinary Americans have. It’s not the government determining who gets the money, it’s me. It’s not me spending somebody else’s money, it’s me spending my money returned to me by the government. So I’m not subsidizing anybody’s speech. My speech is my speech and somebody else’s speech is their speech. And it’s creating an opportunity for a much wider range of people to participate in the actual funding of elections.

I think when people are brought to the place that they can see this as a real alternative, we can begin to build the support necessary to get it passed. But that’s the work we need to be engaging in right now. That’s what takes leadership, and that’s what we need people to start talking about [Lawrence Lessig, in Joshua Holland, “Lawrence Lessig Has a Moonshot Plan to Halt Our Slide Toward Plutocracy,” BillMoyers.com, 2014.04.25].

Make that case, and voters can overcome their leeriness of public campaign financing. That’s what happened last November in Tallahassee, where voters approved such public campaign financing in Tallahassee by a two-to-one-margin. Bring Lessig to South Dakota on a speaking tour, and maybe we can bring voters like Tsitrian around!

Related: The American Prospect briefly summarizes how other countries finance campaigns. Evidently there’s lots of public financing… and shorter campaigns!

In most places there’s substantial public funding of campaigns, and candidates are often forbidden from campaigning until a relatively short period before election day. Put all that together, and you have elections where, even if it would technically be legal to rain huge amounts of money down on candidates, nobody considers it worth their while (for instance, here’s a nice description of the relative quiet of a German campaign). So the idea of someone spending two or three million dollars to get a seat in the national legislature, the way American House candidates routinely do, would seem absurd [Paul Waldman, “How Our Campaign Finance System Compares to Other Countries,” The American Prospect, 2014.04.04].

Waldman links to this juicy database on international campaign finance from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Most of Europe offers some form of public financing for campaigns… which I’m sure will lead to cries of “We’re not Europe!” from the descendants of Northern European refugees running South Dakota’s one-party system.


3 Responses to Public Campaign Financing Tricky Element of Anti-Corruption Initiative—Cue Dr. Lessig!

  1. mike from iowa

    Lessig would be tarred and feathered as a commie/socialist/liberal loving lunatic.

  2. Roger Elgersma

    There is a way to have our cake and eat it too. Limit campaign contributions to a reasonable level no matter how big of a person a corporation is. Also limit all their total contributions including money given directly to a candidate and to all pacs etc. that give to that candidate. That way no one can give more than a specific amount. Let me just throw out a number, like ten thousand dollars, that could be adjusted since I am not up to date on how big contributions are now days. This might limit how many millions some one can get. Mike would not possibly get his nine million. But if someone is going to tell us how much they are going to cut the budget in Washington, they would by necessity have to be capable of running a campaign for less than a dollar per population, otherwise they simply are not frugal enough to cut the budget anyways.
    This would also make it necessary for candidates to meet the people rather than just buy advertising. When Kerry was running against Dean in Iowa, no one seemed to know why the polls switched so much during that primary. Dean had been about twenty points ahead and ended up about twenty points behind in one states primary. The media did not know why either. I was quite puzzled myself. But when the vote came in and Dean lost bad he went into a rant that absolutely did not match someone that was peaceful and against war as both said they were. If someone wants to cut the budget and wants nine million for themselves to run, or if they are vindictive ranters and want to stop war, the common person can see through the crap. You can have all the slickest adds and if they do not match you yourself, then you are not what you say you are. So if candidates did more meeting the people and less spending on TV adds, we would get the leaders that we want and need.
    So if we limit contributions rather than pay them with tax money, we could get good candidates and excellent winners without the corporations buying the election of the taxpayers having to pay for it.

  3. Deb Geelsdottir

    Yes, this is a huge issue, quite likely the most important in America today.

    1. Public financing.
    2. Strict time frame.
    3. Crystal clear disclosure of all amounts above $50.
    4. No corporate personhood.
    5. Individual names of each donor.
    6. Penalties with real teeth for campaign lies.

    Those are the first things that come to mind for me.