Political Fixes

It's getting more and more difficult these days to fight the big money that runs the political system.

And it appears the status quo would prefer it that way.

The New York Times reported recently that at the annual convention of the National Association of Secretaries of State in July the big talk was about bringing order to the presidential nomination process. One proposal on the table appears to be to host several large regional primaries -- similar in nature to the South's Super Tuesday -- that would be rotated every four years to prevent any particular state or region from controlling the process.

The secretaries apparently are concerned that the jockeying to see who could host the earliest primaries and caucuses -- and therefore put their state's imprimatur on the race -- was creating a political crisis.

"This is getting to be a bigger mess than ever, a political and civic crisis," William Galvin, secretary of state for Massachusetts, told the Times after the convention.

There is a crisis. But it has nothing to do with a lack of order.

In fact, the problem is too much order and too great a reliance on the two major parties. Essentially, the Democratic and Republican parties are private clubs with privileges protected by law in most states. They are guaranteed slots on the ballot and have their candidate selection processes -- the primary election -- paid for by each state's taxpayers.

Contrast this with independent and alternative-party candidates who have to climb the steepest of hills just to get their names before voters, and then have to do battle against better-funded, better-coordinated and often more professionally organized opposition.

During presidential elections, the concentration of power in the two-party system is further consolidated, with front-running candidates determined by a handful of states with early primaries and regions holding massive multi-state primaries. Candidates need to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire for their candidacies to be considered viable enough to the people who fund their runs. Those candidates who can't raise the cash can't compete in the races that follow -- the giant regional primaries that are fast becoming the norm and that are the ultimate arbiter of who gets on the ballot.

And since the major media outlets generally ignore independents -- except if they are like Ross Perot and have large personal war chests or are considered novelties like Ralph Nader -- this leaves voters with few choices.

The secretaries of state should be seeking ways to open the ballot and to loosen the grip that the two parties have on the national electoral process, rather than fighting off the insurgents.

The states could start by making the two major political parties pay for their primary elections and make all candidates follow the same petition requirements to get on the ballot. In many states, independent candidates are required to get significantly more people to sign their petitions than their party-backed opponents.

And they need to change the rules that govern elections at the state level and allow some of these reforms to be used in elections for national office.

Louisiana, for instance, holds one large primary in which voters choose from among all candidates for a particular office with the top two -- regardless of political party -- facing off in the general election.

Other states have experimented with weighted-voting systems in which voters can cast more than one vote for a particular candidate. If there are five open seats, for instance, voters could cast all five of their votes for a particular candidate rather than be forced to either choose five or not vote at all.

And there is the fusion system in place in states like New York, which allows candidates to run on lines from more than one political party.

None of this will have much of an impact, however, if the influence of money on the process cannot be limited. Candidates for national office in 1996 spent more than $800 million, not including the money spent by the sponsors of the Democratic and Republican conventions that year, and significantly more is expected to be wasted on the next presidential-year vote.

This kind of money means that candidates and office holders are forced to spend most of their time fund raising and crafting special privileges for their corporate patrons -- rather than developing and implementing policies that will benefit average Americans. And it means that independents and alternative-party candidates cannot effectively get their message out.

Various reforms have been floated, but those being taken the most seriously will do little to change the ways things work. Comprehensive reforms are needed that address the outrageous sums being spent while not minimizing the very real First Amendment concerns being raised.

Providing free television time to qualified candidates -- provided the qualifying bar is set low enough to allow independents to get on the air -- would be a start.

A voluntary system of public funding would be better -- candidates would get public funding and a large block of free TV and radio time in exchange for promising to limit to smaller donors their intake of private contributions and by capping their overall spending. This would level the playing field for independents and remove the influence of large donors, while allowing candidates an out if they do not want to play by the new rules.

These reforms might not make for a more orderly election system. But they will open it up. And, after all, democracy is a messy business.

Hank Kalet is a writer living in South Brunswick, NJ.

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