Column: Walk in Lebanon for Campaign Finance Reform

Friday, May 22, 2015
I recently found myself speaking with an unsuspecting group of political pundits in Lebanon. A dozen teenagers with a hacky sack were passing the time after school near the steps of City Hall as I came out of the building. I asked them a simple question: What do you think about politics?

The words they used in response cannot be printed in this newspaper.

I am accustomed to hearing older people express dissatisfaction with politics. “Our voices aren’t being heard,” or “It’s all about the money,” most people say when I ask. Still, a majority of people age 45 and above still make time to cast their ballot in the general election.

The same cannot be said of young voters. When the U.S. Census Bureau first began tracking voter turnout in 1964, more than half of young people below the age of 24 reported voting. By the presidential election of 2012, the rate had dropped to around one in three. In midterm elections, the rate is even lower, at roughly one in five. In primaries and local elections, it is not much better than zero. This is especially true for people with limited incomes and education.

Many attribute low voter turnout to disinterest among the youth, and that is party true. Young people often do not feel the same stake in their community as their home-owning, tax-paying parents or grandparents do. In fact, young people who are leaving home may not identify with a given geographic community at all. For some, these attitudes will change as they grow older.

But disinterest is only part of the picture. What struck me about the Lebanon teens was how utterly disillusioned they were with Washington and how angry they felt toward the entire political class. Politics as practiced in the United States was inherently corrupt, they thought. Politicians were just in it for themselves and the people who funded their campaigns. Why would anyone bother to vote or get involved?

Their views are widely shared. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans ranked government as the number one problem facing the country, ahead of unemployment and the economy. Three-quarters of Americans think politicians are corrupt, according to a 2014 Reason-Rupe survey.

Here in New Hampshire, the perception was reinforced last week with the revelation that U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta accepted over $355,000 in illegal contributions from his parents to fund his winning 2010 campaign for the House. Whatever the congressman’s explanation, the fact that he has now agreed to return the money and pay a $15,000 fine to the FEC — a body famously prone to partisan gridlock and nonenforcement of the law — clearly demonstrates that he was in the wrong and is unfit for public office.

When a congressman breaks the law by accepting large donations to fund his campaign, then lies about it for years to win re-election, people of all ages lose faith in our democracy. For young people who are still forming their views of politics and setting lifelong habits, the damage is especially severe.

Nevertheless, the cynicism at issue did not begin with Guinta and it will not end when he leaves office. The real scandal is a system of corruption that fosters undue dependence of public officials on private money — and sacrifices good governance and public trust in the process. Five years after the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unlimited spending in Citizens United, campaigns are awash with special interest money from a tiny and unrepresentative elite. Here in New Hampshire, the 2014 election obliterated all previous spending records with an estimated pricetag of $105 million. The majority of those dollars came from outside interest groups running negative attack ads.

Fortunately, this problem is not insoluble, even under the current Supreme Court. A menu of reforms — and a movement to back them up — are at hand.

First, the solutions. Rather than have our elected leaders spend 30 to 70 percent of their working hours raising money for re-election from a fraction of 1 percent of the population, Congress can change the source of campaign funds through small-donor incentives. Under a citizen-funded elections program, serious and hardworking candidates who raise a requisite number of $5 to $100 qualifying checks would receive matching funds or citizen vouchers, provided they say no to large contributions. At the same time, simple action by Congress and the president could ensure that pay-to-play spending by lobbyists and government contractors is curtailed; disclosure and noncoordination requirements between candidates and super PACs are enhanced; and solutions to Citizens United are advanced.

If these reforms seem out of reach, consider the 69 New Hampshire towns and 16 other states that have already voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. For evidence of how small-donor incentives can change the very nature of campaigns — including who can run for office in the first place and what issues get addressed — nearby Maine and Connecticut provide a compelling case in point. All these reforms already enjoy a measure of bipartisan support.

Changing the ways of Washington won’t be easy, but New Hampshire has a special part to play during the upcoming presidential election. Already, thousands of Granite Staters of all stripes are leaving their cynicism behind and “walking the talk” for reform — literally — in their communities. Their commitment to ask the question of the presidential candidates and walk for democracy in the footsteps of legendary reformer Doris “Granny D” Haddock is earning headlines around the nation. When the walkers hit the streets of Lebanon and Hanover this Saturday, we’ll see if a group of teens and their hacky sack join in.

What remains is for the presidential candidates, and every other aspiring public servant, to respond in kind by pledging to “walk the talk” for representative democracy and advance real reform in Washington.

Daniel Weeks is executive director of Concord-based Open Democracy, whose NH Rebellion campaign against big money is organizing walks throughout the Granite State, including one Saturday at 11:30 a.m., starting in Colburn Park in Lebanon. Information can be obtained at nhrebellion.org.