As the furor over the April 7 Hinsdale District 86 school board campaign wanes and the 2016 Presidential marathon heats up, it seems an appropriate time to bring up the whole issue of elections in America. With the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, money became a form of protected speech, which has injected billions into the process. But my concerns and suggestions are about more than just money. Voter participation and access to information about candidates and issues are also problems that seem to be ubiquitous in American politics as well. When it comes to the democratic process, the United States could use an extreme makeover.
Without question, money is a corrupting force in American politics. The Obama and Romney camps each dropped roughly a billion during their campaigns for President in 2012, and most experts are saying that those figures will be chump change compared to what Clinton versus Bush (or Sanders versus Cruz—it’s still way too early to know who’s going to run— or my dream ticket, Warren versus Paul?) will have to raise this time around. That Sheldon Adelson can hold tryouts in Las Vegas to see which Republican candidate best meets his needs while the Koch brothers have publicized their intent to spend some $900,000,000 in 2016 shows how screwed up things have gotten. More and more legislator time is devoted to fund-raising, which cuts into our representatives’ ability to enact laws; someone should do a study to show the correlation between the increased pressure to solicit contributions and the inability of our politicians to pass bills. My belief is that there’s a strong interaction between the two.
And the 2016 Presidential campaign scandal stories have already begun with Peter Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash, leading to Bill Clinton’s Global Foundation admitting to “mistakes” in its acceptance of donations from foreign governments while Hillary was Secretary of State, giving, at the very least, the appearance of impropriety. In an exclusive psychic revelation that only readers of Snowflake Schools will get, my prediction is that this will not be the last story of its kind this election cycle. (You’re welcome.) In order to be a viable candidate these days, you must have access to large amounts of cash. To get that cash, you have to be able to tap large donors. As we all know, those large donors have agendas which sometimes necessitate the receivers of those donations to act in ways that are not always in the best interests of the constituents whose votes put the receivers of the donations into office in the first place. Money is a cancer that is eating away at the organs of our democracy.
But money is far from the only problem we have with our elections. Several states have pushed through voter identification programs which make it more difficult for people to vote, using voter fraud as the rationale. But the kind of voter fraud which IDs would prevent has been shown to be virtually non-existent in the United States. One study reported in the Washington Post (found here) discovered a whopping 31 cases of voter fraud out of roughly one billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014 (that’s a 0.00000031% rate). We here in the Chicago area can be forgiven for some skepticism on this, since the Democratic machine of the 1950s and 60s was notorious for generating “creative” voting practices, allowing, for example, the deceased to keep participating in elections. Yet those days are long over.
The problem we have with voting has nothing to do with fraud. Instead, we struggle with participation; voter turnout in so-called “off year” elections, like April 7th’s, is pathetically small. In the College of DuPage Trustee and Hinsdale Township High School District 86 School Board elections (two of the more hotly contested and highly publicized races in the area most recently), the percentages of registered voters in DuPage County and District 86 attendance areas who showed up to cast ballots were 17.4% and 27% respectively. And that 27% in District 86 was one of the biggest totals in recent history. So even when there is a good deal of publicity, record amounts of money spent on campaigns, and larger than average turn-outs; the best we seem to be able to do around here is for one-in-four voters to show up. People simply do not vote in very large numbers.
And that leads to the third issue: Information. Given the amounts of cash being burned on campaigning, you would think that there would be all kinds of solid information on the issues, the candidates’ stands on the issues, their records, and their qualifications to do the jobs for which they are running. But you would be wrong to think that. You have to hunt diligently to be able to find much factual, objective material about the candidates or the issues, especially in the over-looked local elections which actually have a much more significant impact on citizens’ lives than national elections do. Media outlets like Fox News and MSNBC don’t even attempt to hide their biases, so you can’t rely on them for anything even close to objective reporting. And more dramatic world and national stories like ISIS beheadings or riots in Baltimore draw much attention from newscasters, justifiably as we do need to pay attention to these important events. In your everyday life, however, the quality of your schools, roads, police protection, fire prevention, bridges, electrical grids, zoning, water, and property taxes—while not as attention-grabbing, perhaps—have much more significant impacts on your quality of life.
The people who have the greatest responsibility for ensuring the maintenance and improvement of all those issues are school board members, village trustees, and local mayors. But try and find objective data and biographies about the candidates for those offices. Local papers and on-line news sources (WARNING: Shameless pandering to one of the places where I am allowed to publish my stuff just ahead) like The Patch do a reasonably good job of reporting what’s going on locally, but they have more difficulty in showing side-by-side comparisons of the most important issues in the most objective way possible, the candidates’ stands on those issues, and the experience/expertise those running have to offer.
The aforementioned District 86 school board election of April 7th provides an illustrative example of the problems voters face in determining which candidates are most qualified. What became the key “issue” in the District 86 school board election had little to do with the candidates running or the issues facing the schools. Instead, a confrontation about neither school policy nor candidate qualifications came to dominate the coverage of the election: When a board member (who wasn’t even running in this election) interacted with a high school senior who was passing out cards for a slate of candidates prior to a play at Hinsdale South; their petitions, charges, and countercharges took over election coverage.
No longer were the very real and significant issues before the district mentioned much in the media as the Chicago Tribune, which had featured little about the election up to that point, had several stories and an editorial over the next two weeks (and continues to feature the story as evidenced by this May 12th story). Local media and their comments sections on-line were rife with accusations and analyses of who was in the wrong, what should be done about this, and especially attacks on the characters of those involved as well as those who were posting comments. The campaign manager of the slate of candidates aligned with the school board member (but not the slate supported by the high school student) became a focal point as he was relentless in his defense of the board member and used questionable language; meanwhile, the important aspects of the election were subsumed in the trivia of whose definition of “tart” was most accurate.
So what should be done to make our election system better? Let’s begin with the easiest solution: Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has plenty of time to vote. I’m not sure we should go so far as to requiring everyone to show up at the polls, but if we all had the day off every first Tuesday in November, that would certainly eliminate many of the excuses we generate not to vote. No, I would not change the day to a Monday, as that would just lead to people taking off for a three-day weekend and might even lower turn out. Shrewd merchants could have special sales for those who had proof that they’d voted, and parents could take their kids to the polls to help establish a voting tradition. Maybe we could even combine Election Day with another important holiday which has been neglected more and more in recent years, Veterans Day. If soldiers risk their lives to protect our system, then Veterans/Election Day might encourage us to vote, at least to show we appreciate their service in protecting our right to do so.
Getting better, more objective data shouldn’t be that difficult with the internet. I remember the disaster that was the government’s health insurance website, but it would seem logical to set up a system where a governmental group determined the key issues before voters and provided exactly the same amount of space to all candidates to outline their positions. The same could be done for the candidates’ background and experience. A side-by-side explanation of where Hillary and Jeb stand on education, gun control, marijuana legalization, assisted suicide, social security, treaties with Iran, etc. would be a big help. But even more useful would be explanations of local issues and the positions of potential school board and mayoral candidates. Not only would the electorate be more informed on the candidates’ stands, but voters would probably learn an immense amount about those important-but-less-reported local issues.
The first problem listed in this essay—money—is also the toughest to address, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. But we do have examples in other countries (the United Kingdom, for example) where both the length of the election and amount of money spent on campaigning are tightly regulated. How about banning paid political commercials from TV and limiting candidates’ appeals to equal access on government-run channels? Want to see the candidates debate? Turn to the Campaign Channel (national, state, and local editions) to see an endless loop of the officially sanctioned face-off between the candidates. Or tune in to the government radio station. Or check out that internet site. There are ways to lessen the impact of money by making sure each candidate has the same amount of exposure so that the voters can understand what their positions are without the lies and exaggerations that most political ads currently employ.
The goal here should be to elect the best person for the job, not the most media savvy or richest. Right now, we’re getting the latter, and our country’s political problems reflect that.