There is a renewed call in Sacramento for tougher campaign finance reform, following the indictments of Sen. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee on corruption charges, and Sen. Rod Wright’s perjury conviction.
I have been running campaigns for more than 25 years and can guarantee that the well-meaning reform proposals will not work.
The reforms proposed may help temporarily push the alleged corruption out of the headlines, but they won’t push money out of politics. If history is any guide, the money will be harder to track and more likely to corrupt.
Ultimately, the answer is not to limit the ability of candidates to speak to voters. The solution is to make it easier for candidates to be heard without having to raise so much money.
The challenge facing reformers is that the U.S. Supreme Court consistently has equated money with speech and has struck down efforts to substantially limit campaign spending.
The response of reformers has been to pass laws making it harder for candidates to raise money, meaning more hours on the phone for candidates. Whenever candidates’ ability to affect the outcome of an election is reduced, the vacuum is filled by so-called “independent expenditures” in which outsider groups seize the opportunity to elect candidates friendly to their cause.
In many California primary races this June, outside groups spent substantially more than the candidates themselves, a disparity that will grow if fundraising by candidates is further restricted.
Money doesn’t always determine the outcome of races. But it almost always does.
Instead of another set of well-intentioned but ultimately failed laws that seek to reduce the funds raised by candidates, the Legislature should take a hard look at the driving force behind this endless fundraising.
The simple truth is that campaigns and candidates raise funds because it costs money to be heard. A lot of money.
For example, one week of television advertising in California now runs more than $3 million, and that’s for a modest buy.
If we want candidates to spend less time in the corrupting pursuit of campaign cash, we need to make it possible for them to be heard without needing so much of it.
While some reformers have pushed for publicly financed campaigns, the early results have not been promising. The winners have tended to opt out of the systems, and voters have balked at the prospect that their hard-earned tax dollars will fund yet another barrage of campaign hit pieces.
There is another option – and it is one we already use: the ballot handbook that is mailed to every California voter.
Noted pollsters have found that voters report the ballot handbook is one of their most trusted sources of information. And it is available only to candidates for state office who agree to reasonable campaign finance limits.
So to lower the amount of money candidates need to raise, let’s increase the amount of times they can be heard if they agree to limits.
Instead of one mailing, why not four – with the “original” book used as it is now but with additional mailings on the key topics of the day.
Give candidates the opportunity, and the challenge, to tell voters in one page how they would address job creation, transportation, environmental or other key issues.
Go beyond print and establish a state-hosted website that only candidates participating in voluntary limits could use to post their plans. Promote these online resources through all of the state’s communications channels – from signs at the DMV to Sutter Brown’s Twitter feed.
California’s official website, www.ca.gov, is one of the most heavily trafficked Internet sites in the state. If the state sold access to that site, it would be worth millions of dollars.
By making these properties available for reasoned debate, the state would provide a powerful motivation for candidates to accept reasonable spending limits.
Together these state-supported communications could reach what we in the trade call “threshold,” which means there would be enough repetitions for voters to remember.
Like every other political consultant, I urge my clients to raise the money it takes to be competitive. The more money they have, the more voters they can reach.
It is beyond a cliché – consultant urges candidate to raise more money. But without funds, candidates become noble losers instead of effective officeholders.
As any political consultant can tell you, it is a rare candidate who wants to raise money. If we give them a chance to be heard without endless fundraising, most would embrace it.
I and people in my line of work might make a little less money. But democracy would benefit, and that’d be worth plenty.
Eric Jaye is a political consultant and founder of Storefront Political Media and Storefront Political Labs in San Francisco.