I recently finished reading a very interesting book, The 2% Solution by Matt Miller (there's a link in the sidebar if you want to check it out). The basic premise is that many of the biggest problems our country faces could be solved in ways that liberals and conservatives could agree to (the author claims they can "love" these ideas, but that's a bit optimistic) by spending just 2% of our nation's GDP each year.
There are a lot of big ideas in the book, far more than a single blog article can cover, but I've been mulling over one specific, relatively small idea for some time. I think it's worth consideration, though the details might need to be tweaked. It's one of the least-partisan issues the book raises, so it's perhaps one that might actually be addressed at some point.
The idea is to provide public financing of elections on a national level, something which has been tried in several areas around the country. Portland just had its first "Voter Owned Elections", with mixed success (see Jack Bog's Blog for extensive coverage).
Most such systems involve candidates for office qualifying in some way for public funds for their campaigns. In Portland, qualification requires collecting 1,000 or 1,500 checks for $5 from individual voters within the city, at which point the candidate is given between $150,000 at $250,000 (all details depending on the office and whether in the primary or general election). Candidates who participate agree not to spend money beyond the public financing amount. If a candidate's opponent chooses not to participate, and spends more than the public financing amount, the public financing candidate gets additional funds to match.
It's a fairly complicated system, and as the case of Emilie Boyles (see Jack's postings above) illustrates, it's wide open for fraud. In fact, Ms. Boyles' supporters claimed as a "defense" that the rules were just too complicated to figure out (which begs the question... if Ms. Boyles couldn't figure out the campaign finance rules, was she really qualified to hold the office in question?)
Anyhow, this 2% solution idea is a radically different approach. Instead of having to qualify as a "legitimate" candidate and then getting a big ol' bag of cash, the idea is that each voter is given a $50 political donation voucher (perhaps as a debit card or some other mechanism). The voter may spend that money on any campaign that he wishes, or split up the money among different campaigns. Or, not spend the money at all.
What that does is eliminate the worry about "fringe candidates" making off with public money (they could, but they've got to convince real voters to give the money to them, so the problem is minimized) without putting an undue burden on legitimate candidates to qualify for funding. And, it distributes power to the people, in that nobody has to come up with the money to donate themselves, they're given that money to spend. Low income voters would be able to help financially support the candidates of their choice, which would certainly change the dynamics of most races. Currently, low income voters can be ignored to a certain extent, because while they may vote, they certainly won't be giving money to anyone. Put $50 in everybody's hands to spend on the candidates that they like, though, and watch the nature of public debate change overnight.
This approach also favors popular candidates, i.e., those with broad support in the community. In the Portland example, a candidate who can just barely collect 1,000 small donation checks is able to get the same level of funding as someone who could collect 5,000 or 10,000 donations. With this system, the more popular candidate could get proportionately more funding.
Now, the cost of such a program would be pretty high -- with 100 million voters (give or take) in this country, we're looking at $5 billion every time we charge up those $50 cards. Of course, not every voter would likely spend his allowance every cycle, and the proposal favored by Miller is intended for federal elections only. If we were to expand this program to the state and local level, $50/year is not going to do the trick. But I'm not convinced that the federal government should be paying for state and local candidates, either. Perhaps states could contribute an additional $25 per voter (in the case of Oregon, this would work out to around $50 million in state funding). Obviously the scope of the program needs to be worked out.
And finally, the proposal in the book is essentially to not regulate other expenditures or fundraising, which is seen as a lost cause. Rather, the idea is to offset the power of concentrated money interests by simply giving a financial voice to those who wouldn't otherwise have one. In other words, your favorite local billionaire would be free to spend as much of his own money as he wants on the candidates of his choice. The popular candidate with 1 million $50 public donations could still be outspent by the candidate who has 100 friends with $1 million each. So it's not a perfect system.
But it would put the power of public financing where it belongs -- in the hands of the people. And it would, as I say, give a financial voice in the political process to millions of people across the country who currently have none.
What do you think?