Election money, primary system inflame voters


Herald Writer

Elections aren’t the sexiest party topic.

But they got plenty of folks hot and bothered during informal surveys throughout Snohomish and Island counties this summer conducted by Herald reporters to find out what issues were on people’s minds.

The respondents were worried about the exorbitant amounts of money being spent on campaigns, they were cynical about where that money was coming from, they were confused and angry about our blanket primary voting system being abolished — in short, they were upset about elections.

Now, they have a chance to vote into office the candidates who will deal with those issues, if they come up.

Campaign finance reform is a perennial discussion and a perennial disappointment for its proponents.

"The prospects for change are not great," said Mark Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington who wrote a book released last month called "American Business and Political Power."

The rules we have were put in place after the Watergate presidential campaign scandal and haven’t been changed since, Smith said. One of the strongest recent attempts at reform was put together by U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Their original bill would have drastically altered the system, Smith said, but "now it’s pretty much down to banning soft money; that’s what they’re left with, and that hasn’t even passed."

Soft money is money given directly to political parties. There are no restrictions on how much can be given. The parties can’t give that money to candidates, but they can spend it on a candidate’s behalf through issue advocacy ads, for example, that praise or criticize candidates but stop short of telling viewers to vote in a certain way.

"It sounds like a trivial distinction, and in many ways it is," Smith said.

The biggest argument against banning soft money is that it violates freedom of speech. Spending money on elections is one way for people to promote their viewpoints.

"If you put a cap on it, you’re capping free speech, and that ought to be unconstitutional," Smith said in describing opponents’ views.

Principles aside, whichever party is in power is likely to raise a lot of soft money and unlikely to want to restrict that ability.

Publicly funded elections are another reform option.

Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont have recently adopted a public funding system for their state elections similar to how presidential elections are financed.

It works by allocating a certain amount of tax money for candidates to use on their campaigns. They don’t have to accept the money, but if they do, they’re not allowed to raise or spend any more than what’s given.

It’s intended to reduce the total amount spent on campaigns, curtail special interests’ influence on elections and free up candidates from nonstop fund-raising to discuss the issues.

Campaign finance reformers also are pushing to require broadcasters to give free time to candidates. The airwaves belong to the public, they argue, and should be used in the public’s best interest.

Free airtime would reduce the amount of money candidates need to raise to campaign.

But does the average person really want to see more campaign ads on TV?

"There’s a debate over what the public wants on this issue," Smith said, adding that each camp believes it has the public’s support.

Regardless, it’s not a popular idea among broadcasters worried about ratings and the bottom line.

"As a politician, the last person you want to offend is your local broadcast station," Smith said. "So this isn’t going to go anywhere."

But the state legislators elected next week will be forced to deal with at least one election issue when the session convenes Jan. 8. Because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, they’ll have to come up with a change to the primary election voting system Washington’s had for 65 years.

The popular blanket primary has allowed Washington voters to choose any candidate for any race without having to register with a party. The high court ruled that violated the party’s rights to have their own members choose candidates to represent them in the general election.

The Legislature, Secretary of State’s Office and state political parties will have to work out a new system for next year’s primary.

The alternatives range from a closed primary, which requires voters to register with a party and then only vote from among that party’s candidates, to a modified blanket primary, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, to simply abolishing the primary and letting parties have their own nominating conventions for the general election.

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