A modest proposal for campaign finance reform

Every voter gets a voucher worth $25/year to give to any political body.

1. Every registered voter gets an annual voucher, sent to the address from which he is registered (or sent electronically to his email address), worth $25. The voter can sign the voucher over to any candidate, party organization, or political committee.

2. No candidate or organization which accepts contributions in excess of $100 from any individual or non-party-affiliated political action committee shall be eligible to receive vouchers.

3. Independent expenditures are unregulated, but in order to receive vouchers a campaign or party organization must certify that it has not coordinated efforts in any way with organizations making independent expenditures.

Campaign and campaign-related expenditures this cycle have been estimated at about $2.5 billion. $25 per voter per year times about 125 million registered voters means a potential voucher pot of $3 billion a year, or $6 billion per cycle. That’s a pretty cheap price at which to buy our country back from the fat cats, special interests, and fanatics.

Not all of that will get spent, of course; some of those vouchers will never be cashed. On the other hand, you’d expect the number of registered voters to go up as the voucher system made voter-registration efforts potentially self-financing.

This would somewhat level the playing field between Democrats and Republicans in terms of who has more money to spend. But it would favor Democrats in a much more fundamental way: freed from slavery to its funding sources, the party could take much more aggressively populist stances on topics from taxation to telcom regulation to bankruptcy. Not all of those revised stances would coincide with my view of the public interest (a popularly-funded Democratic Party would probably be more protectionist, for example), but they would all help fix the problem of working-class people not bothering to vote for the Democrats because they can’t see much in the Democratic program that really serves their bread-and-butter interests.

As a card-carrying member of the liberal cultural elite, I’d expect the Democrats to be somewhat less friendly to my views on cultural issues, and somewhat more responsive to the cultural conservatism characteristic of the lower half of the income distribution. I would hate some of the results. But they would, after all, be democratic results, even if illiberal. All of us liberal elitists would then be force to try to persuade our fellow-citizens of such virtues as tolerance, rather than being able to cram those virtues down their unwilling throats.

Would it sell? Maybe. Conservatives love vouchers, don’t they?


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

13 thoughts on “A modest proposal for campaign finance reform”

  1. I would especially favored such a proposal, if it were "financed" by an in-kind tax on advertising: that is, if if the vouchers were ultimately redeemed by media companies taxed on their use of the public airwaves, cable/phone franchises, and the general noisome clutter of ads plastered on every bus, billboard and surface visible to the public.
    The pool of undeemed vouchers could be "redeemable" by the Media companies thru public service programming, meeting certain minimum standards of fairness and accuracy. (And, yes, we could have political libel laws, with appropriate adjudication, which would make Big Media think three times about distributing certain political ads, just as they hesitate to accept advertising, which "disparages President Bush" in the the present joke of a system.)

  2. Conservatives love vouchers as a step from pure government provision of a good or service, towards market provision of it. Not for their own sake. What you're suggesting is voucherizing something that's already almost purely a market phenomenon. Takes it in the wrong direction entirely.
    The goal here seems to be to ration core 1st amendment speach, discouraging it in unregulated venues, and channeling it through regulated venues.
    Putting incumbant officeholders, who are already so secure in their positions that they might as well hold tenure for life, in a position to regulate even further the speach of people who are trying to oust them from office.
    Here's my counter-proposal for campaign reform: Take seriously the first five words of the Bill of Rights, ("Congress shall make no law…") and realize that speach and published words concerning candidates for office are catagorically outside the proper reach of the law.

  3. I say we just do it right the first time and have a campaign finance system paid for by taxpayers. Candidates can opt in or not, the only caveat being that if they opt out, the fund will match expenditures of those who opt in with those who opt out, dollar for dollar or more frankly. You can see where the incentives are.
    As for free speech of political groups in and outside of campaigns, I say we also match expenditures against those groups, based on an evaluation of who the outside ads help. If they help one candidate over another, then the other candidate gets matching funds.
    And finally, I would like to figure out how to match some sort of accountability to a candidate with claims made in political ads by the candidate or by supporters on his behalf. I know the arguments against it, and I know one big one is that sort of thing resolves itself politically. But not in time. By the time an erroneous if not libelous attack ad is deemed so, the damage has been done and perhaps even the vote counted.
    I personally think that if someone uses a false/deceptive/misleading attack to get elected, the results should be nullified and the damn thing done over until they can do so honestly. Only the next round, their actions make them inelegible for taxpayer funds, though not their opponent.

  4. I personally am terrified at the thought of a government controlled by those already in office deciding if words meant to remove them from those offices are "deceptive". Is anybody else here familiar with the concept of a "conflict of interests"? (I see no sign of it!) I don't suppose you can get a much worse conflict than letting people in office decide what can be done to try to pry them out of those offices.
    And that's what ANY legislative "campaign reform" ultimately boils down to: The people in power deciding what people who are trying to take that power from them will be permitted to do and say.
    Just. Leave. It. Be. There are some things the government can't be trusted to mess with.

  5. I'm not terrified. Or more correctly, I'm more afraid of the path we're on now.
    And since we're not using the FISA courts anymore, maybe we can have those judges use their legal skills to arbitrate.

  6. Like most campaign finance reform ideas, it's way too complicated. Just set a maximum to the amount of money that can be spent on any one campaign (different rates depending on what office the candidate's running for, of course).

  7. "Not all of that will get spent, of course; some of those vouchers will never be cashed."
    On the contrary — voucher-holders who don't give a rip about politics will sell their vouchers for real cash money. Candidates, parties, and groups could purchase vouchers for, say, $20 and pocket the surplus.
    Such purchases could be banned, of course, but good luck enforcing it.

  8. The restrictive elements of the proposal are unappealing, unworkable, and unnecessary. You should focus instead strictly on the supply side–not on the intractable problem of preventing corrupt politicians from selling themselves to well-heeled campaign donors, but rather on the eminently tractable task of making it possible for honest politicians *not* to do so, while still mounting an effective campaign.
    I've long been puzzled by Americans' distaste for public funding of campaigns, as demonstrated by the unpopularity of the campaign financing checkoff on the 1040 form. It always seemed to me that giving politicians a campaign financing source other than de facto bribery would be well worth the cost. Perhaps, as you imply, the problem was simply finding the right packaging–like your "voucher" proposal….

  9. "I say we just do it right the first time and have a campaign finance system paid for by taxpayers. Candidates can opt in or not, the only caveat being that if they opt out, the fund will match expenditures of those who opt in with those who opt out, dollar for dollar or more frankly. You can see where the incentives are."
    I like this plan, but instead of dollar for dollar matching, make it dollar for $1.10. Also, every candidate for federal office gets the exact same amount of commercial airtime, free of charge. If someone in a race wants to pay for more time, all of their challengers get a bonus.
    One thing that I think too often goes unmentioned is that public financing, if done right, would greatly increase the influence of third parties, probably much more so than say IRV.

  10. "is that public financing, if done right, would greatly increase the influence of third parties"
    Which is why it would never be done "right". Look, you can spin any fanciful system you like, but when the rubber meets the road, what will actually get enacted is a law written by incumbant office holders, who will use the occasion to erect still more barriers to challengers, just as they have every previous time campaign "reforms" have been passed.
    Campaign "reformers" are just the incumbants' useful idiots. Every time you enable them to pass more laws, the situation gets worse, not better. Haven't you NOTICED this?
    Catch a clue, and stop helping them while there's still some lingering point in having elections!

  11. Greg, no reform of campaign finance will help third parties, since it would do nothing about their biggest problem, the fact that under the current voting system a third party can gain votes only at the expense of the major party that agrees with it more, thus helping the major party that's farther from it politically. Until that problem is addressed by something like IRV, third parties have nowhere to go.

  12. What is it you are trying to accomplish with point #2? It seems to me that it would strengthen the major parties at the expense of independents, since you can get out-of-system cash through the parties, but not otherwise.
    It seems to me that campaign finance is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem. It MIGHT be worth addressing directly, but it seems to me that going after the root causes (incoherent tax accounting–why not just use GAAP minus dividends; government-granted monopolies; government-owned monopolies) would be more helpful in the long run.
    That said, this is not as clearly an incumbent-protection scheme as our current law, or as most proposed reforms.
    But I'm still with Brett–how about "everyone can say whatever they like" as a legal standard for campaigning.

  13. Sam and Brett:
    One more time: the problem isn't speech; the problem is bribery. My proposal would leave political speech entirely free; you could hire a billboard or buy TV time to say "Congressman X does it with goats." You could even run an entirely privately-funded campaign for office, though you'd have to do so without the public subsidy provided by the vouchers. As Dan says, the point is to make it possible to run for office without taking money from organizations that demand a quid pro quo.

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