by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
Last Tuesday’s election was all about the numbers for my fellow political junkies and me. Votes, dollars and percentages. I think I wore out my Web browser’s refresh button checking the races.
I was surprised to see the television networks call some of the East Coast races entirely on the exit poll data – before any votes had been counted. Can you imagine what it was like to be a loser in those races? You walk into your election night party and are quickly pulled aside by an aide who informs you of your loss. You inquire, “How many votes does my opponent have?” Zero. You just lost to a guy who is in the lead with zero votes. That’s harsh.
The best line of the night was from Pat Lensmeyer. “I hope I get at least a hundred votes. I mean, really, who is going to go all the way through the ballot just to cast a vote for an unopposed tax collector?” By the end of the night, more than 45,000 people went through the effort to show Lensmeyer the confidence they have in her work.
In some races it is clear that a money advantage means a vote advantage. The numbers are still not all in, but it looks like more than $460,000 was spent in the Ed Robb vs. Jim Ritter race. From what I can tell, Robb spent about $290,000, and Ritter spent $170,000. That works out to $19 per Ritter vote and $32 per Robb vote. A candidate who touts his economist credentials should be able to get a better return on investment.
In the U.S. Senate race, a slight cash advantage was too little for Jim Talent to counteract his record as a Bush Buddy. While the final tally is not in, it looks like Claire McCaskill spent $19 million to Talent’s $21 million. Apparently there are electoral economies of scale in the statewide races because that works out to $18 per McCaskill vote and $21 per Talent vote. Or you can look at it as $40 million total spent – about $10 for every registered voter in the state.
A similarly ridiculous amount of money was spent in races all over the state. The race for the 18th Senate District will probably run well more than half a million dollars. It is fascinating to watch and analyze the votes, dollars and percentages, but when you take a step back, one thing is clear: This is no way to run a democracy.
It is ridiculous that a qualification for office includes raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. To expect those who do raise the dollars to not give preference to their benefactors is a fantasy.
The solution to the “money problem” is not lobbyist reform. Although lobbyists make easy scapegoats for the problems in our political system, they are really just doing their job – doing whatever they can to influence legislative votes. The problem is that taking money from lobbyists is now a requirement for running for office. If we want to fix our political system, we have to provide candidates the option for alternative financing.
Maine and Arizona have model systems for publicly funding campaigns that are completely voluntary. The candidates who elect to participate don’t spend their time “dialing for dollars” but instead have time to meet with constituents, even constituents who are not wealthy. What a novel idea.
The Arizona system is funded by a surcharge on speeding tickets, so Arizonians who don’t want their money going to finance campaigns have an option out: don’t speed. In both states, more than 70 percent of state lawmakers use public financing. One of those lawmakers, Sen. Chandler Woodcock of Maine, said, “I’m very comfortable in telling you that there isn’t influence in my campaign. I’m not beholden to anybody.”
There is no reason Missouri can’t implement a system for publicly financed campaigns. It would be a struggle to pass – any time you try to alter the way money flows into politics, there will be stiff resistance. But taking back our government from the influence of corporations and special interest groups would be worth the fight.
Public financing might not prevent the negative ads, the dozens of pre-election phone calls and the multitude of canvassers at our doors, but it will ensure our representatives are beholden only to the people they are elected to represent. It will also return lobbyists to their rightful place in our political system: advocates who represent particular interests based on the reasoning of their arguments, not money brokers who have the ability to make or break campaigns.