With the 2012 presidential election only weeks away, we voters are being inundated with phone calls, direct mail pieces, billboards and lawn signs promoting individual candidates. Just in the Mahoning Valley, Paul Ryan has dined at The Hot Dog Shoppe and Joe Biden at the Mocha House; Ryan spoke at Youngstown State University; and Biden visited the Canfield Fair.
Blue-collar workers are dunned for at least two years prior to the election to donate anything they can to their party. With white-collar individuals signing checks for amounts like $36 million or $16 million, it is a wonder why we blue-collar people give anything at all. How much does this electioneering cost?
Thus far, as of Oct. 11, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets website, the presidential candidates registered spending amounts between them of $574,845,081. You read the figure right, hundreds of millions.
It gets worse.
In January of 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that unions and corporations could make political contributions into entities called Super-PAC (political action committees) so long as these were not donated directly to the candidate of their choice. This money is usually spent on radio and television advertising.
Thus far, the Super-PACs have reported spending $670,115,216.
We've now reached more than a billion dollars having been spent on the presidential, congressional and state campaigns and that is just the monies reported. More astoundingly, with individuals and organizations combined, the top 1 percent gave 59 percent of the money received.
This rampant spending should be unacceptable to the American public, so where is the outcry? There must be a better way. I think that this money could have been better spent on things like roads and bridges, social programs, shoring up the Federal Reserve or any number of other worthy causes.
Just in our community, the Olive Street bridge in Niles is closed, Route 422 from Southington to Parkman awaits a limited access upgrade, and many other infrastructure projects away state and federal support.
Our elected officials have tried to capture this runaway train since the 1850s. Legislation like McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 is just the latest attempt to limit the amount and kind of donations a candidate can receive.
Other methods have been proposed like giving all citizens $50 and suggesting that they donate $25 to the presidential race, $15 to the congressional race and $10 to House campaigns.
There is also a method proposed that the government match each small donation of $250, in essence making small donations larger and lessening the effect of single large donors. Clean money / clean elections is another method proposed, again with matching government funds and requiring each candidate to garner a certain number of signatures along with $5 donations in order to receive public money.
There would be no private money in this system. Congress voted down last year to limit the amount of money that foreign contributors could give.
I think campaign finance reform is a fight worth taking on at a grassroots level. It is a question of how much money is enough. Both parties have shown that they cannot fully answer that question.
If millions do not do the job, then I do not know what will. The presidential race alone cost $2.4 billion in 2004, a 27 percent increase over 2000. We are well on our way to topping that in 2012.
The British system could be that better way. Traditionally, the British election campaign season is short, on average about four weeks.
They, by law, have prohibited the use of radio and TV advertising promoting an individual candidate. Instead, broadcasters are required by law to provide minimal free air and TV time for the major parties to present infomercials.
This means that the British elections are not driven by spending like the American system. Donors are posted on a website. There are no limits on giving. Since there is less demand for money and full disclosure of contributions required, the British system purportedly lessens the likelihood of influence buying that the American system seems to promote.
Call me an optimist. I believe by limiting the time of the actual campaign, banning advertising from radio, TV and print until four weeks before the election, campaign financing will reform itself.
If there is less need for big money, the money will diminish and those of us who are struggling in this economy will feel less angry about the money being spent trying to influence our votes. Imagine only four weeks campaigning instead of two years. Imagine contributions becoming reasonable again.
It is possible.
O'Connor is a Brookfield resident.