October 2, 2002

Election Perception

By: James N. Markels

The election in Iraq two weeks ago, wherein every single one of Iraq’s nearly 11.8 million eligible voters was claimed to have voted to give Saddam Hussein another seven-year term as “president,” was a joke long before the polls even opened. Hussein kills off political adversaries, and every ballot corresponded to each Iraqi’s identity card so that officials would know who didn’t vote for him. Was anybody really supposed to believe that there was a real choice in the matter?

But before we too quickly scoff at such a sham, consider the following from our own elections: Incumbent candidates in the House of Representatives were re-elected an amazing 98.5 percent of the time in 1998 and 2000, and incumbency in the Senate regularly tops 80 percent. Of the 34 Senate seats up for election in 2002, only six of the races are considered competitive. Roll Call cites only ten House incumbents as being on “thin ice” in 2002–that’s out of 435 seats. If it weren’t for redistricting plans pitting incumbents against each other or drastically changing their constituencies, the situation would be even bleaker.

So, in a way, it’s rather odd for us to be scoffing at a no-brainer election in another country when the vast majority of our federal elections are no-brainers as well. Now, I’m not saying that the procedures of our elections are comparable to Iraq’s–the worst thing our politicians fire at voters is rhetoric–but the results are eerily similar. Unless a member of Congress voluntarily steps down or is forced out by scandal, they basically can stay in office as long as they wish. One wonders what’s the point of voting when most of the races are decided long before votes are cast. No wonder most voters choose to just sit at home.

We perceive our system to be a vigorous republic, with each election being about “the will of the people.” But instead we have a system that seems to make it impossible for incumbents to be seriously challenged. I don’t think we got to this point accidentally; what we’re seeing is an obvious result of the campaign laws we have in place today. It should come as no surprise to see that campaign laws created by those in office happen to create an environment where incumbent candidates win–what politician would want to help their challengers? The question then becomes: What can we do to make the system as competitive as we think it should be?

Commentators have offered a number of ideas. Columnist Jonathan Alter argues that the media is shirking its “civic responsibility” by not doing more to inform voters, and stations should be forced to broadcast “two hours a week of political coverage in the weeks preceding an election.” Yet the media is stuck with a tough situation: One look at the polls in most races can only lead to the conclusion that there’s no news in who will win, and most voters will have gone to sleep or switched the channel away from “political coverage” before the first commercial break. Frankly, the negative TV ads and the two-minute canned debate answers are about all the analysis most people care to bother with. Besides, many voters care more about a candidate’s character than their stance on any particular issue.

Some groups, like Common Cause, have suggested that money is to blame; specifically that political donations have weakened our elections. The proposed solution there is either to rigorously limit donations or to eliminate them altogether and have all campaigns be publicly funded. They also advocate limiting the ability of special interest groups to spend money promoting their own issues or the candidates they favor. All of this money, they argue, corrupts the system.

It seems to me that these ideas all play directly into the advantage of incumbent politicians. Political speech costs money, and the less you allow each donor to contribute to a campaign, the more donors a candidate needs to raise the necessary money to campaign with. Incumbents have an obvious natural advantage here, as their donor lists will be much longer than those of lesser-known challengers and third-party candidates, and they don’t need to spend money reminding the voters who they are. Not allowing challengers to take in big donations from fewer sources automatically gives the money advantage over to incumbents; and those who spend more money have a clear advantage in elections, with higher-spenders winning roughly as often as incumbents do.

The problem with “taking money out of politics” is that any publicly-funded system will be devised by–guess who?–the incumbents themselves, who will naturally be interested in gaming such a system to their advantage. For example, the Cato Institute has found that Maine’s 1996 “Clean Election Act” public financing law failed to remove the advantages of incumbents and resulted in even more incumbents running and winning–by larger margins–than ever before. Political scientists Michael J. Malbin and Thomas L. Gais have found that public financing systems in other states garnered similar results.

And muzzling special interest groups will only drive down voter turnout. The $100 million spent near the end of the 2000 elections by groups like the NAACP, unions, and the Christian Coalition encouraged voters to get to the polls. The fewer voters there are, the smaller the pie the incumbent needs to win a majority of, and the more their natural advantages matter.

Less money in elections means less political speech and fewer people showing up to vote–two things that always help incumbents stay in office. It seems to me that if we want to have truly competitive elections, then the rules have to be as wide open as possible. The only way for challengers to raise the money necessary to unseat an incumbent is to remove restrictions on donations. Some fear that this might cause corruption, but the vast majority of donors, big and small, give to politicians who already share their views and aren’t trying to change them. Besides, it seems to me that a system that entrenches incumbents is far more likely to foster corruption anyway. Let the public see who gives how much to politicians and then let voters make their own decisions about it. Maybe then we could have elections that get the voters truly interested again.

Oh yeah, and somebody ought to fix those voting machines while we’re at it…