Clean Elections and Government as a Public Square

Late update: It seems that I was behind the times as usual and missed the fact that David Nachbar has withdrawn from the NY29 House race.  That’s good news for Dems in the 29th and beyond.  But the spirit of the post still stands.

I was searching the Internet, looking for articles on Clean Money, Clean Elections to discuss when I ran across an LTE in the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin on the subject. The original LTE, while it hit all the strong points on CMCE, was not half as interesting to me as the comments in the infamous Gannet Story Chat section:

Want more clout? Let state fund elections (Story Chat response) || Press and Sun-Bulletin:

Yeah, and they had state-funded elections back in the old soviet Russia too. The state-funded elections were calm and everything was peaceful – just what this letter-writer wants! That’s because (sp. correction mine) you could vote for only the state-funded candidate selected by the state.

For now, let me set aside the breathtakingly out-of-date Soviet Union reference. Instead of being baited by the inflammatory language of the argument, let me address the only issue of substance in his argument, which is that public financing will lead to an authoritarian restriction of choice.

Is it possible that a program run by the government could be used to impose authoritarian rule over the American people? Yes, it is. But even with Social Security and the Social Security Card numbers assigned to every American; despite states issuing driver’s licenses; despite all the people who have ever been fingerprinted, that has not yet happened. The fact that is hasn’t yet happened does not justify every new imposition of government authority, certainly, but it does suggest that there are more forces at play than the simple granting of federal authority.

So the effect of public financing on our choice of elected officials is so far, at best, an unknown quotient; there is no legitimate certitude of anything. I’ll return to that concept in a moment. But let me now deal with the opposite view: that the elimination of government involvement increases the freedom of the people. This is certainly true, also, in some circumstances. But in the case of elections on just about every level of government, it has not been the case. It is becoming less and less the case as time goes on.

In fact, if the imposition of public financing *might* lead to a restriction in electoral choice, then private funding has already accomplished that restricting our choices. You cannot run for state-wide office in New York State with less than half a million dollars, bare minimum. How does this constitute a democracy? If people with good ideas are forced out of the running by the fact that others are simply buddies to millionaires, that is not democracy at all, it is plutocracy.

Our own County Executive election in Monroe County is a perfect example. There is no Democratic challenger to the incumbent, Maggie Brooks. The independent Andrew Stainton appears to be a perfectly principled private citizen who wants to make a difference for our county. He’s running for Monroe County Executive, but he’s not going to win. It is not a question of his unpopular policies or politics; it is not a referendum on our current County Executive’s performance. There is but one reason that neither he nor any other challenger will win this election, and that is because the incumbent Maggie Brooks has already amassed a war-chest of nearly a million dollars.

When the votes are counted, irrespective of what you may think of Maggie Brooks as a County Executive, irrespective of what you think of Mr. Stainton’s positions on transportation, the only issue on the table is Maggie’s Million. To put it another way, Maggie has one million constituents who mean more than you do.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is running for president on his own cash, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg was at least thinking of doing the same, the last I checked. Both of these men are insanely rich enough to run on their own. Though perhaps not nearly as rich, David Nachbar is threatening a dangerous and expensive primary against Eric Massa in the 29th because he, too, can afford to run without needing to garnish the support of. . . well, anyone.

Don’t get bogged down in whether or not you support the policies of any of the above candidates, just recognize that none of them (except Eric Massa) needed your support to run. Recognize also that if the challengers to these men cannot match their funds, no amount of good ideas or dedication to service will prevent their challengers from rolling over them. So that really does beg the question: when it comes to who gets to decide your electoral future, does it matter whether the millionaire in question does or does not have a government job? Does it matter whether it’s an elected millionaire official who acts on authority of their station, or if it’s just Richy Rich acting on his own volition?

If you see our government merely as a collection of elected officials, then that is your only real choice. Personally, I don’t see government that way at all. I believe that our democratically elected government is at least meant to be a public square in which a person’s means are not the measure of their worth. It is a place where we can argue, agree, build coalitions or go our own ways, but one in which our collective assent is the only force that ultimately arbitrates our differences.

Our elected leaders are not the faceless bureaucrats of the former Soviet empire. Even George Bush and his Republican Majority eventually answer to the will of the American People. What influence we might have in the affairs of millionaires happens through our government and outside of that public square, we are powerless to stop wealth from overtaking democracy.

I can concede that giving over the power to fund elections is at least somewhat uncomfortable. Trusting your fellow citizen always is. But failing to do so does not increase our choices in leadership.

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By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.