Currents: The Myth of Election Reform | Essay | Chicago Reader

Currents: The Myth of Election Reform 

Would the system be improved if the money were removed? A surprising number of informed voters doubt it.

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A fanatic, according to the legendary "Archey Road" barkeep Mr. Dooley, is someone who does what the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case. Mr. Dooley could have added that reformers are the same way: they try to accomplish what the populace would demand if only the populace paid attention. "The people are with us, whether they know it yet or not," is the battle cry of school-choicers, reproductive-choicers, term-limiters, gun-controllers, and campaign-finance reformers.

But at least on campaign-finance reform, the reformers may be wrong. There is solid new evidence that most informed people do not agree with Common Cause and Bill Clinton that our democracy will be improved by tax-supported congressional campaigns waged with strict new limits on spending in general and on political action committee contributions in particular.

This news comes from Lawrence Hansen--a native midwesterner who has worked for Adlai Stevenson III and Richard Dennis and is now a research professor at George Washington University. He used $75,000 of Joyce Foundation money and a novel "deliberative polling" technique to find that on this issue the generals are marching one way, their army another. Yet with the exception of a favorable mention by David Broder, most of the mainstream and alternative media have responded with a yawn.

It usually goes without saying that something needs to be done about political campaigns, which are widely viewed as both the heart of democracy and ignorant exercises in ten-second sleaze bites. When I was talking recently with State Representative Clem Balanoff (now a congressional candidate) about the difficulty of getting a utility-reform bill out of committee, he interrupted his own story to declare, "We need campaign-finance reform" because of the utilities' "tremendous financial control" over state lawmakers.

But here is a subject that causes political scientists to throw up their hands in despair at the distance between the reformers' cliches and the facts. Do political action committee contributions influence roll call votes in the U.S. House of Representatives? Not noticeably, once you take other factors (like the political complexion of their districts) into account. Are congressional campaigns, which cost a total of $445 million in 1990, "obscenely expensive"? Not by realistic comparison: Sears's 1990 advertising budget was over $1.4 billion. (These examples come from political scientist Frank J. Sorauf's 1992 book Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities.) What's amazing is that Hansen's midwesterners came rather close to the experts' skepticism even though such skeptical views rarely show up in the media. Maybe there's something to this democracy idea after all.

Hansen began in the spring of 1992 by calling 22 acquaintances of acquaintances in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He asked each of them to gather a dozen or so people, have them read a 45-page primer (that he wrote) on campaign-finance reform, and then get them together sometime during the summer to discuss the subject and vote on it. Nineteen said yes; ultimately 222 midwesterners participated.

Two groups met in Chicago, two in the suburbs, and two downstate. Linda Von Dreele, director of Partners in Community Development, convened a group of 14 in Hyde Park. Ryan Chew, voter registration coordinator for County Clerk David Orr, gathered 8 downtown. "It was an excellent opportunity to pull people around the table who might not have much in common," says Von Dreele. Most of them, like her, had been conscious of the issue but not immersed in it.

Why pay attention to what these 222 people think? They're no random sample. They aren't powerful. They aren't experts. And although they're 56 percent female and 21 percent minority, they certainly do not represent the general population: they are better educated (more than half have attended graduate school) and far more likely to vote (96 percent do). One-fifth of them have even run for public office.

"These citizens are not typical," acknowledges Hansen in his September report on the project. "They care about politics. They vote regularly. They try to keep up with public affairs. They have strong opinions. They occasionally contribute to political candidates." If for some reason you suddenly had to have an intelligent opinion about the public financing of congressional campaigns, these are people you might well consult. In sociologist-speak, they're opinion leaders.

"We intentionally targeted this audience," writes Hansen. "Major shifts in policy direction--whether on health care, trade or political reform--rarely occur and succeed without their prior understanding and acceptance." He figures that if you're trying to get something done, the informed opinion of such people carries more weight than the uninformed opinion of a random sample of the public.

If you really want to annoy Hansen, call his groups "elitist." "Who are elites? Is a community organizer on the south side a member of the elite? These people [inside-the-Beltway campaign-finance reformers] claim to speak for the downtrodden, but they don't mix it up with the downtrodden."

If anything, Hansen's gang of 222 is probably biased a bit toward the left. Fifty-one percent identify themselves as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents, 49 percent as liberals or moderate liberals. A colleague told Hansen, "This really looks like a demographic profile of Common Cause." Their opinions don't.

Forty-nine percent opposed any public funding of campaigns, and only 7 percent favored full public funding. Only 25 percent supported a mandatory limit on campaign spending. Only 13 percent would sharply reduce individual contribution limits. A thumping majority (77 percent) said better financial disclosure is very important, at least as important as any other reform. Other things they agree on add up to piecemeal changes, not sweeping reforms: add some limits on PACs, limit out-of-state and out-of-district contributions, and perhaps give candidates some free TV and radio time.

"We started off with a strong vision of manageable reform," recalls participant Timuel Black Jr., a longtime independent political activist and professor emeritus of social sciences at City Colleges. "But as we discussed it through the evening we became frustrated, and more aware that it is not easy. Certain things we thought we'd agree on we became less sure of. Suppose, for instance, that the state said, "We'll finance every campaign on an equal basis.' Well, that depends on who's in charge! That's moving toward authoritarianism, because he who pays the fiddler calls the tune." Similarly, a ban on all PACs might not really level the playing field between challengers and incumbents--it might make it even harder for newcomers to break in.

Hansen sent a copy of his report--Heartland Voices: Americans Talk About Money, Politics and Reform--to Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause. He hasn't heard back. Since Broder gave it a favorable mention in the Washington Post, however, Hansen says a number of CC chapters around the country have called up. Hansen himself claims to be "agnostic" on the campaign-finance issue. He thinks the reformers could convince people, but not by their current strategy of listing big-money contributions to U.S. senators and representatives and saying, "Ain't it awful?"

The people who participated in Hansen's groups are not complacent about American politics. On average, they give U.S. political campaigns a grade of C-. They agree that something needs to be done about money in politics, but not that sweeping government programs are the way to go about it. "We had a strong feeling that the problem was not necessarily getting the money out of the system," says Ryan Chew, "but making sure that everyone had the money to get in, that a full range of informed opinions was represented. It seemed more important to open the forum for debate than to keep contributors out."

"Many participants say that purging private money from politics is . . . a little like trying to contain a swollen Mississippi River within its banks," writes Hansen.

"A blizzard of new rules and regulations, a number of participants note, is more likely to spawn ingenious circumventions than a surge of cleanliness. Therefore, putting in place reliable early warning systems that enable citizens and the press to judge the financial behavior of candidates and officeholders is a matter of greater urgency. . . .

"In the words of one participant, 'Tell us before election day who's getting what from whom and why, and we'll decide if our interests are being served or compromised.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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