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Davis, California

Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: Unfair elections

Given that California uses initiatives that allow citizens to directly vote on constitutional amendments, we have a greater responsibility to be informed about issues that may on the surface seem inconsequential.

An initiative on this year’s ballot, Proposition 15, called the California Fair Elections Act, deals with one such complex issue requiring more than a passing consideration.

Prop. 15 addresses campaign finance, and is yet another attempt to limit the impact of money and lobbyists in politics. It sets up funds for the California Secretary of State that could potentially decrease the time spent on fundraising as well as cut back on lobbyist influence. Having a well-funded campaign is often the key to victory for many political candidates, so any change to campaign finance laws can change whom we get as an elected representative. Well-connected incumbents have an edge, making re-election a common occurrence.

The influence of lobbyists over our representatives is troubling because it raises concerns over whom politicians serve. Efforts by lobbyists don’t discriminate based on party, and neither Democrats nor Republicans can claim to be free from blame.

So the potential payoff of Prop. 15 seems worthwhile. The most prominent features of the new law are: Placing a fine on lobbying and all registered lobbyists, allowing money raised from these fines to be given equally to qualified candidates running for Secretary of State and capping the amount of private funds that they can accept. According to one section of the bill these steps can be seen “to reduce the perception of influence of large contributions on the decisions made by state government.”

This is part of what makes this law and many others like it go astray.

For years the federal government has used campaign finance laws and public funding of campaigns in an attempt to make elections fairer, but this has been largely unsuccessful. After campaign finance laws were created in the mid 1970s, there was certainly a major shakeup in the composition of congress. Many incumbents lost, adding more fresh legislators to the mix of veterans. It appeared that the effort had succeeded.

This shakeup didn’t last, and a nasty lot of unintended consequences started to crop up. Clever politicians began finding ways to abuse and take advantage of the system. Special groups called “527s” were created through a loophole in the law, allowing unlimited amounts of money to be used indirectly to support a campaign.

One of the problems that campaign finance laws have created is the increased difficulty for an average citizen to observe just who is being funded and how it is being funded. The perception that campaign finance laws have truly freed up candidates from lobbyists and money raising is false and perhaps even more dangerous than simply allowing funding to occur directly.

Campaign finance laws continue to give the edge to insiders and people who know how to work the system. If there are loopholes in Prop. 15 politicians will find them.

For one, it’s voluntary, so must be agreed upon by all candidates. A candidate with a large advantage in private funds is less likely to agree to any measure that levels the playing field. Even though this might be met with public scorn, a large amount of cash can make up for a poor initial public perception. Having to fund financially similar campaigns might be worth the cost of eliminating lobbyist fueled earmarks, but given politician’s ability to skirt the rules it isn’t necessarily a burden that the public should have to accept.

There is also a provision that prevents candidates from using public money for things like legal fees and other personal expenses. This means that they can be privately funded, once again opening up a potentially large amount of financial disparity and reliance on lobbyists.

The last problem with this law is that publicly financing campaigns is illegal in California. Prop. 15 uses lobbyist money to finance campaigns, but what if there is a shortfall? That burden will fall on the taxpayers.

The bottom line is that while attempts to make access to political positions open for people who are neither rich nor well connected insiders is a worthy goal, they are often abused, undermined and produce whole new sets of complications and barriers. Given the limited scope of Prop. 15, it might not hurt to give a law like this a try, but those unintended consequences might just rear their ugly heads again.

JARRETT STEPMAN doesn’t want public service to be simply for the wealthy and well connected, but he also thinks well meaning efforts for reform can be twisted to serve those who are. You can contact him at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.

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