Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Fixing the electoral system - Part I - Money

Ok. I've had time to reflect and I have some thoughts on how to fix the electoral system. Most of them are thinly veiled rants disguised as calls for change. But perhaps somewhere within the rants are useful ideas that someone else can expand upon...

I don't think anyone can dispute that money now plays a disproportionately large role in the electoral system. The total spent during this election cycle was on the order of $4 billion. That's right. BILLION. In the words of the late, great Carl Sagan, "billions and billions" of dollars. And for what purpose? To try to change people's minds. In most cases, to try to convince people that at worst outright lies and at best misleading half-truths are facts. Note that I am lumping the majority of political advertising in here, not just Bush's advertising. Some instances were worse than others. But, when was the last time that a political ad gave you actual information.

What can you buy with $4 billion dollars? Healthcare for millions of Americans? Better salaries for teachers? Create a living wage? Tax relief for low and middle class America? Those are all good choices. Or maybe we just use it to pay down the deficit.

Before you start screaming, I know it is not the government's money. I'm just pointing out how some people can barely afford to live, while another segment of the population can afford $4 BILLION dollars convincing these people that their guy is the one who cares about them. You want to show them that you care about them? Give them the money directly! That's right! I'm advocating vote buying. If we are going to dump this kind of money into the economy, let's dump it where it will do the most good. Give it to the people who can't afford stuff. If you gave $4000 dollars each to the poorest 1 million voters, they would not sock that money away for a rainy day. They'd buy crazy stuff like food, or pay rent, or get that operation that they couldn't afford.

I'm sorry to say, but the days of "one voice, one vote" are over. The problem is that not all voices are weighted equally. It's more like "$1k, one vote". And since votes have such value, let's make them a tradeable commodity. Voter turnout would go up. Does anyone doubt that a poor person would go to the polls if someone was going to give him a grand to go with their guy? Anyone want to try to put together a series of simulations on the dynamics of "votes for sale"? Might be good for the economy.

Don't like the idea of vote selling? Ok, how about this? Every time a political campaign spends $1 campaigning, it also has to donate a matching dollar to a secular charity? Kind of like the luxury tax in sports. You want to use money to do something sinister, you have to balance it by doing something good.

The problem here is the conflicting issues of free speech versus influence peddling. Or, put another way, is free speech really free? I am free to say what I want with respect to my beliefs. As long as I stay clear of the slander and libel laws, I can put out whatever is on my mind. However, without money, or some other mechanism of widespread dissemination, my free speech isn't going to go very far. Special interest groups have the same freedom of speech. In fact, because of their resources, they have a little more freedom. Because they can afford the penalties, they don't have to worry as much about the slander and libel laws. Plus, if they are sued, it is not likely to resolve until the election is over. And there is no reasonable relief for someone who lost votes to a lie. Great, you were awarded $1 million, but you lost the election. So, someone who has money to spend has a greater freedom of speech. On top of this, because of their resources, their speech can reach further. So, we have an equality issue there. Is another person's opinion more important or valid than mine because they have greater resources? Given that line of reasoning, is restricting a person's use of the airways a restriction on their freedom of speech or an attempt to create equality of speech?

Here's another idea regarding political speech. Let's pass laws requiring content be approved by non-partisan fact checkers before it can be aired. We restrict hate speech, right? You can't just drop the N-word on TV. What is more hateful than deliberately lying to manipulate people? Let's make it a crime. And let's impose something more than fines to the perpetrators. Let's give them jail time in severe cases. Can you imagine Bush or Kerry trying to campaign from jail?

And while we are calling in fact checkers, let's have them AT the debates. There's more incentive to tell the truth if someone is going to call you on it right then and there. There's less of a chance of people misremembering things as well. Picture it.

KERRY: Yes. When the president had an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he took his focus off of them, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, and Osama bin Laden escaped.

Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, "Where is Osama bin Laden? " He said, "I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned. "

We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.

SCHIEFFER: Mr. President?

BUSH: Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations.

** A buzzer sounds **

FACTGUY: I'm sorry Mr. President, but you did say that. In fact, your exact words on March 13, 2002 were "So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him , Kelly, to be honest with you. . . ." and, in response to the follow up question "Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."

And there are fact checks that could go the other way as well. That's just the one that seems most blatant in my memory.

We could even keep score. It could be like boxing. Three judges would score each round. You'd get a point for a good and factually sound point. You'd lose a point for being caught in a lie. There would be no penalty for saying something that was factually accurate but not particularly effective. A candidate could be warned for hitting below the belt. Three warnings and the candidate would be disqualified from the debate. At the end, they could announce a winner. That would also help Americans wade through the spin. You can't spin a result of Bush 15 - Kerry 10.

So, to recap:

* Allow vote buying
* Make misleading or dishonest ads illegal and punishable by jail time
* Require ads to get past a non-partisan fact check bureau before airing
* Have fact checkers buzz in during the debate.
* Develop a scoring system for the debate that declares a clear winner or a draw

Anyone want to try and make an actionable idea out of any of this?