Viewpoints: Why don't the people we elect represent us?
by J. Charles 'Chuck' Coughlin | May 30, 2017
From the Arizona Republic:
James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper #10, “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by Republican principle which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by a regular vote.”
Yet here in Arizona, our Legislature just passed two laws substantially curtailing the public’s ability to place issues before the electorate through the initiative process, which has been effectively used since statehood to provide some form of relief valve for the Arizona electorate over actions taken by the Legislature.
I wonder what Madison would make of our Congress, our State Legislature, and many of our leaders if he were alive today to see that a wide majority of the electorate disapprove of the job these people are doing.
Why is this happening? Why does it feel like a minority point of view is being driven into law by elected officials who were chosen by the people of Arizona in a supposed open and free election?
Let’s start with the idea that Arizona elections are open – they are not. The American experiment today is dominated by two special interests which use taxpayer dollars to fund their private elections while restricting access to those elections to only candidates who are a member of their private party. A person who is not registered to vote, or does not belong to a party, is not entitled to put their name forth as a candidate in a publicly financed “primary election” for public office. This group of voters that is not registered to either party makes up 34% of the current registered Arizona electorate.
It is not surprising, in such a closed market system for recruiting candidates, that only about 54% of the eligible adult population is even registered to vote. Essentially, American voters get only two choices. Here is a short tale of the tape in Arizona:
- 54% of eligible voters are registered to vote
- 40% of eligible voters participate in Presidential Elections
- 23% of eligible voters participate in Gubernatorial Elections
- 15% of eligible voters participate in partisan Primary Elections
Bear in mind, with gerrymandered Congressional and Legislative districts, nearly 80% of General Election outcomes are virtually decided in the partisan Primary Election.
Whether you are a Republican who abhorred the Obama years of governance by Executive Orders, or a Democrat who firmly believes we just elected an unstable man with authoritarian impulses – you must be telling yourself, this system isn’t working anymore for the people.
To fix this, we must admit the laws and rules governing our elections are determined by these two parties. In fact, there is a coordinated effort to maintain the status quo of regional party dominance.
As for “free elections,” recent laws passed by our elected leaders have made it even harder for voters to address their grievances via the ballot box when they encouraged the use of undisclosed contributions, or “dark money,” through super PACs in Arizona elections.
For the most part, undisclosed campaign spending through super PACs is not commonly used to promote a candidate. Instead, it is almost always used to batter and smear the opponents of their preferred candidate. They are the paid hit squad used to bury an opponent under an avalanche of mud, making a lesser known challenger candidate virtually unelectable in a small turnout primary election.
In 2014, we saw a super PAC come to Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s rescue in the last two weeks of her race against Terry Goddard by attacking his record. We don’t know who funded the attacks. We can only be sure they did not want Goddard elected and that these attacks worked, as Reagan came from behind to win. Is it any surprise, then, to see Secretary Reagan retreat from her past statements regarding campaign finance transparency and instead work to write and support legislation which loosened the laws on the very dark money groups that contributed to her victory?
With candidates no longer in charge of their own campaigns, dark money groups handle the dirty work that campaigns used to abhor. If the third-party group goes negative, the candidate can continue to tell people what a great person he or she is and claim ignorance about who is behind the nasty campaign ads talking about his or her opponent. And of course, a candidate can’t publicly ask a dark money group to stop attacking their opponent. That would be coordination with an outside group and that of course is illegal!
Before our Republican partisan friends howl with cries of how their right to free speech would be hindered by more disclosure laws, I would simply remind them that the brightest conservative legal mind of the past century, Justice Antonin Scalia, fell squarely in the camp of more disclosure.
Now that we’ve laid out our state’s electoral process flaws and why this is preventing us from electing leaders that represent all Arizonans, not just 15% of us, what should we do? Here are some simple ideas for our elected officials that we believe will get the ball rolling:
Admit that Independent and PND voters and candidates are not treated fairly through our entire electoral process. Governor Doug Ducey admirably called for the Presidential Primary Election to allow Independents to participate in 2016, but we think that should be taken a step further. If partisan actors want to continue making it nearly impossible for independent candidates to make the ballot or participate in primary elections, they clearly run the risk of a lawsuit challenging equal access to the ballot. Before that however, they could choose to fix the system.
Stop the flow of taxpayer dollars to private party elections. As private parties, Republicans and Democrats have the right to choose their preferred candidate through any process they choose; they do not, however, have the right to a private election subsidized by taxpayers, who may themselves be barred from participating. The State’s Constitution prohibits gifts to private parties that do not promote the public good. So again, before you get sued, change the primary system and give every candidate equal access regardless of Party affiliation.
Put the power back in the hands of the candidates. Introduce legislation similar to the bill introduced in Congress by Senator Ted Cruz earlier this year called “The SuperPAC Elimination Act of 2017.” This legislation would eliminate caps on individual and group contributions to candidates and require disclosure of any contribution within 24 hours, putting candidates in control of and responsible for their message and increasing transparency for voters. Of course, we would improve Senator Cruz’s legislation when a group is the contributor to require disclosure of the “original sources” of the contributions. Republicans will appreciate the removal of limits on free speech, and Democrats will be in favor of more transparency. Make candidates do their own dirty work.
Samuel Johnson said, “The first step to greatness is to be honest.” So let’s first admit our electoral system no longer represents the people. Then, let’s do something real that Makes America Great Again by ensuring the integrity of electoral process and guaranteeing equal access to the ballot for everyone regardless of Party – our Founding Fathers would be proud.