Put elections back in the hands of voters

All election candidates and all donors should be on equal footing, says Rep. Jerry McNerney of Stockton.
All election candidates and all donors should be on equal footing, says Rep. Jerry McNerney of Stockton. Abaca Press/2013

I believe the way we finance campaigns in this country is a threat to our cherished democratic institutions and values. The system contributes to wasteful government spending, political paralysis in Washington and voter apathy.

The sources of campaign funding are often opaque, leading to a lack of accountability and potential influence from those without our nation’s best interests in mind, such as foreign donors. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans believes our campaign finance system is broken, so why can’t we fix it?

There have been several attempts to legislate campaign finance reforms at the federal and state levels, but the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly overturned laws that impose reasonable limits on campaign fundraising and spending. The only thing the Supreme Court cannot overturn is a constitutional amendment, which may be our only hope of changing the system. That’s why I am proposing exactly that solution.

The ever-increasing amount of money flowing into the political system distorts the political process and affects the ability of elected officials to govern. So much time is spent fundraising that it leaves less time to represent constituents, pass laws and oversee federal agencies.

Much of this money is used on misleading, negative TV advertisements, which often contain personal attacks and little or nothing about relevant policy issues. Voters are bombarded with unflattering images of candidates, and they end up holding their noses and voting for the “least offensive” candidate, if they vote at all. The depressingly low turnout in the 2014 midterm elections illustrates this effect.

Those negative ads make legislators wary of taking a firm stance on controversial issues. For example, polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support common-sense gun legislation. But well-funded national organizations that strongly oppose restrictions on gun purchases spend millions each year to try to defeat any candidate who supports such a policy. This process happens over and over when elected officials vote on contentious issues such as health care, immigration reform or support for military operations. Instead of enhancing free speech, our current campaign finance system limits free speech by drowning out voices and ideas that do not have big bank accounts behind them.

Tracking the sources of all this campaign money is also a big problem. Political fundraising organizations such as super PACs are able to funnel money into races without disclosing who is creating a particular advertisement or supporting a certain candidate. There is no way to know if these organizations are supported by foreign donors who wish to subvert campaign rules and influence our elections.

The effects of gerrymandering leave only a small number of House seats truly competitive. Independent campaign money can be directed to those competitive House races, plus a few Senate elections. Since House and Senate majorities are often determined by who wins those few competitive seats, big money can be very effective in determining which party controls Congress.

It is time to completely reform the current system and put elections back in the hands of the people. My plan (House Joint Resolution 31) would allow donations only from individual citizens. The total amount of contributions from individuals who cannot vote for a candidate cannot exceed the total from those who can vote for the candidate. Congress, state legislatures and local elected boards would also impose limits on how much a candidate may contribute to his or her own campaign. For local and state ballot measures and referendums, donations would only be allowed from those who can vote on the measure.

Public financing of election campaigns would also be permitted and encouraged. My goal is to reform our system to reflect the democratic values on which our nation is based, and place all candidates and all donors on equal footing.

These proposed reforms would completely eliminate PACs, super PACs, independent expenditures and dark money, thereby giving the power back to the people. Clearly, this won’t fix all of our nation’s challenges, but it will over time make our government more effective and responsive, and help defend and protect our democracy for future generations.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Stockton Democrat, represents the 9th Congressional District, which also includes Lodi and Antioch.