THE PRESIDENTIAL TASK FORCE HEARINGS
January 31, 2003
By John Hagelin, 2000 Natural Law Party Presidential Candidate
Since its inception in 1992, the Natural Law Party has supported crucial election and campaign reform. However, for such reform to be meaningful, it must include three interlocking components:
This threefold reform will fulfill every American’s right to complete information about all candidates and their platforms while freeing elected officials to focus on serving their country rather than seeking campaign contributions.
1. Equal access to the ballot, the media, debates, and the public for all qualified candidates
In most states, access to the ballot is automatic for Republicans and Democrats. However, independent and third-party candidates face the most rigid, discriminative, and unwieldy procedures in the world. For example, until 1998, new-party ballot access requirements for Florida alone were more stringent than the requirements for all the countries of Europe combined. Yet unless third-party candidates appear on the ballot, they will not receive media coverage; they will be barred from debates; and the public will not hear their ideas. Therefore, third parties must attempt to fulfill state ballot access requirements.
The petitioning process for third-party candidates is hugely expensive and time consuming. In 1996, for example, the Natural Law Party’s presidential candidate, John Hagelin, achieved ballot access in 43 states—through statewide petitioning drives that were planned carefully and executed early—but the cost was over $2 million. Ross Perot’s petitioning drives, which began later in the campaign season, cost $17 million. These exorbitant expenses cripple third parties in their efforts to bring their message to the public and to participate in the political process.
In that same election year, Republicans and Democrats received $148 million taxpayer dollars to run their general election campaigns—including $25 million to hold presidential nominating conventions. In contrast, independent and new-party candidates typically receive nothing. Therefore, to overcome ballot access hurdles and establish a level playing field with Republican and Democratic candidates, third parties must rely on contributions—often soft-money contributions—to pay for state petitioning drives. Ironically, then, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, by eliminating soft-money contributions—without simultaneously addressing the issue of uniform ballot access requirements for all qualified federal candidates—may create an even greater ballot access challenge for third parties.
America’s ballot access barriers for third parties blatantly violate the 1990 international Helsinki accords that guarantee universal and equal suffrage to all adult citizens “without discrimination,” including equal access to the ballot and the media. Ironically, the United States is the world’s foremost proponent of these accords.
To return American democracy to the high ideals envisioned by our nation’s founders—a democracy that fairly represents the views of all its citizens and candidates—election and campaign finance reform must also ensure ballot access fairness. Every national political party and every federal candidate should have the same requirements in every election for getting on the ballot. Incumbents should no longer have privileges over challengers.
In addition, all qualified candidates should have equal access to the media, to debates, and to the public. It is the right of the American people to hear the views of every candidate on the ballot. All candidates who meet ballot access requirements should have the same access to their constituencies, including equal media access through a series of publicly sponsored televised forums, debates, and infomercials, as well as publicly sponsored mailings of voter education materials (see also point 3).
2. The elimination of all soft-money funding and political action committee (PAC) funding of campaigns
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 represents an important first step toward the elimination of special interest control of our election process. However, the Federal Election Commission, charged with the implementation of the law, has systematically undermined the clear intent of this legislation—for example, by allowing political parties to work with outside groups that would collect contributions in the parties’ stead. A December 5, 2002, editorial in USA Today called such activities “thinly disguised money laundering.”
Special interest groups, acting in collusion with elected leaders, will inevitably find ways to circumvent the intent of legislation that restricts unlimited campaign donations. We need an entirely new approach to the funding of campaigns.
The BCRA does not go far enough. It does not even address the issue of PAC contributions— by far the most egregious and corruptive source of special interest funding. PAC contributions are, in effect, direct bribes to congressmen and should be completely eliminated.
In addition, to further safeguard the integrity of the political process, we recommend that individual contributions to political campaigns be applicable only to those elections in which the individual contributor can vote. In this way, out-of-state contributions will no longer be able to shape the outcome of congressional races.
Research shows that over 90% of all campaigns are won by the candidate who spends the most. Consequently, under the current campaign financing system, government has become a hostage to wealthy special interests rather than responsive to the people. When drafting legislation, our elected leaders often feel more accountable to those special interests than to the people they were elected to serve. This system amounts to legalized bribery. The elimination of PACs and special interest control of the political process would make our elected representatives responsive to the people once again.
3. A shift toward public sponsorship of campaigns in order to reduce the undue influence of special interest money on the selection of candidates and on election outcomes
Under the current campaign financing system, money also controls the media—and thus the access of candidates to the public. Meaningful campaign finance reform must therefore include a shift towards public sponsorship of campaigns—especially in the use of our public airwaves—to ensure a level playing field for all candidates.
Public sponsorship does not mean more public financing—giving more money to all qualified candidates. Rather, it means using the government’s control of the public airwaves to ensure that television and radio stations give something back in exchange for their right to broadcast over these airwaves. As part of their public service contract, the networks should be required to sponsor equal coverage of all qualified candidates during the election season. To make such coverage manageable, we recommend that the campaign season be reduced to four months—two months for parties to choose their candidates and two months for the general election—thereby bringing the length of the U.S. election season into correspondence with all other countries in the world. Without equal access to the airwaves, qualified candidates cannot effectively communicate their message to the voting public.
The U.S. election process is far too long and expensive, and elected representatives spend too much of their terms fundraising and campaigning for reelection. In particular, the increasingly high costs of television advertising have led directly to the increasing costs of campaigns under our current election system. As costs mount, the lure of PAC and soft-money funding often becomes too compelling to resist.
Unlike the major-party candidates with PAC funding, independent and third-party candidates encounter formidable financial obstacles to media access in this electronic age. In addition, the frequent exclusion of these candidates from participation in televised debates, due to the stranglehold of the two major parties on the democratic process, prevents new ideas and new solutions from entering the political process.
The funding of attack ads against specific candidates underscores the problems of the current campaign financing system. The campaign finance restrictions imposed by the BCRA are being challenged as an assault on free speech; yet in today’s campaign media wars, only the wealthy have free speech. Public sponsorship of candidate media presentations would help restore a truly free exchange of ideas among all qualified candidates. This structure would favor voter education over privately funded media advertising and would thereby help eliminate special interest influence on the election process.
Voter education is, in fact, the only way to bring fulfillment to the election process. The Natural Law Party holds that only through effective education that awakens the full intelligence and creative potential of our citizens can we ultimately create an enlightened nation. Our nation’s founders held the same position: Thomas Jefferson, for example, said, “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” Likewise, Abraham Lincoln said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is bring them the real facts.”
Let us restore the democracy our founding fathers envisioned—one that guarantees fundamental human rights and holds the government accountable to the people, not to wealthy special interests. Let us grant all qualified candidates equal access to the ballot, the media, debates, and the public. Let us create public sponsorship of campaigns to reduce the undue influence of special interest money. Let us end the special interest control that has paralyzed and subverted our government, and return the American government to the American people.
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