Beyond Campaign Finance Reform

By Steven Hill

A version of this article was published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on April 16, 1997

SOMEWHERE ALONG the bizarre trajectory from the stately Lincoln bedroom to donor-monks in a Buddhist temple lies an unseemly tale that marks a new low for the two major parties.

In concert, the Democrats and Republicans have driven away disgusted voters from the polls: the 49 percent voter turnout in the 1996 presidential election was the lowest in 70 years, continuing a steady downward trend.

Well-meaning reformers are hoping that renewed public outrage will produce enough momentum to turn this sour lemon into some lemonade in the form of campaign finance reform. Yet significant barriers remain.

The campaign finance-reform movement is made up of different and sometimes competing factions. Among the issues they disagree on is the best way to address the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, which prohibits spending limits in political campaigns. Some want to directly challenge Buckley's prohibition; others want to tap-dance around Buckley with restrictions on donations and voluntary spending limits. Still others want to ignore Buckley and use public financing to exorcise private money from politics. The McCain-Feingold bill, currently sinking in Congress, targets expenditures of "soft money" given to political parties.

But campaign-finance reformers overlook another significant problem. That is the overarching role of the redistricting process in deciding who wins and who loses elections. In the 1996 congressional elections, more than 80 percent of races were won by near-landslide margins of 55 to 45 percent, and 95 percent of incumbents won reelection.

That's because most legislative elections are decided during the decennial redistricting process, in which Democrats and Republicans boldly and blatantly carve up the political map to create noncompetitive districts as a way to protect incumbents and their parties. Increasingly, computer technology enables legislators to choose their constituents before constituents choose them.

What this suggests is that campaign contributors respond to high incumbent reelection rates, using them to buy influence, more than they cause them. It also suggests that even if campaign-finance reformers succeed in passing their agenda -- at this point, a big if -- we may discover that little has changed.

The linchpin of much of what ails our democracy is the continued use of single-seat districts in "winner take all" contests. These districts allow the two parties to shut out other viewpoints (including independent candidates and third parties), to rig the line-drawing for partisan ends, to reduce voters' choices across the political spectrum, and ultimately to thwart the worthy aims of campaign-finance reformers. Change these rules and the game will be played differently.

Two remedies spring to mind. At the very least, the next round of redistricting, in 2000, should be taken out of the hands of incumbents and their parties.

An even more profound change would be to abandon the winner-take-all voting system in favor of a proportional representation system like those used by most established democracies today. Proportional voting systems de-emphasize the role of money by decreasing the percentage of votes needed to win in multiseat districts. For example, in a 10-seat district, a party or candidate would need 10 percent of the popular vote to win one seat, 20 percent to win two seats, and so on.

Proportional-voting systems give voters more viable choices by opening the democracy to a range of political perspectives. As a result, they increase voter turnout and ultimately produce better majority policy, because more voters have representation and input into decision-making. No wonder proportional democracies enjoy turnouts of 75 to 95 percent of eligible voters, compared to the low turnouts of the U.S. and other winner-take-all democracies.

With luck, the bumbling corruption of the two parties will create an unstoppable movement for reform. Let's have a national discussion about what the most effective reforms are, instead of rushing to the judgment that some version of campaign-finance reform alone will do the trick.

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