COLUMN: Voter vouchers will improve citizenship, campaigns

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 2:59 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Missouri should adopt voter vouchers intended to activate voters,  here is why.  

The recent Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission will further push us down the path of apathetic and uninvolved citizens. Granted, it is unclear how broadly this decision will affect corporations spending money in politics, but it can only reduce real citizens’ influence. Some observers predict this will “open the flood gates of corporate money in all campaigns,” while others argue the decision is focused only on so-called “independent expenditures.”

Either way, this decision does not enhance the role of living, breathing, thinking citizens in American elections. A fundamental cause of the widespread distrust in American political institutions is the powerlessness felt by real citizens. Allowing more spending, most likely resulting in more media blitzes, will not enhance real human citizen confidence that their political institutions represent real people like themselves.  

The recent decision rests on two legal fictions that have evolved over time. The first, announced in the early 1800s, is that corporations are legal entities with the same rights as natural citizens; the second, stemming from the 1970s, is that spending money is a form of free speech. Whatever merit these doctrines have for settling contract disputes and legal mind games, they have resulted in weakening the political system. Corporations may be legal entities but they need not be the political entities of “We, the people” (from the Preamble of the Constitution) or “of the people, by the people, for the people" (Gettysburg Address). It is unlikely that the motto of the Pachyderm Club, “Free government requires active citizens,” was referring to citizens as corporations since one of its goals is to achieve broad citizen participation.  

Moreover, “free speech” was once seen as connected to the thought process in the human mind. The self-evident truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness framed in the Declaration of Independence were connected to real people.

One campaign finance reform often proposed is public funding of campaigns. Public funding is used in Arizona and Maine, two rather independent and historically Republican-leaning states. Rather than prohibiting private spending, something courts will likely not accept, these states offer state-wide and legislative candidates public campaign funding if they agree not to accept private contributions from citizens or organizations. Missouri voters rejected a similar proposal in November 2000.

Public funding of campaigns would remove some of the influence associated with money in politics; it does not address the more fundamental flaw in the current political culture, namely inactive citizens.

Missouri should adopt voter vouchers intended to activate citizens. Once a year, registered voters in Missouri should receive a voucher of between $25 and $50, which will allow them to contribute public funds to any candidate for a local or state elected office who has filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Vouchers should be redeemable in $10 denominations, allowing voters to spread their support among several candidates. Ballot measures (via initiative petition and referendum) could also be included. Direct contribution to political parties would also have merit, but I favor direct contribution to individual candidates.

Too many citizens are not in the habit of getting personally and directly involved in elections. They are not in the habit of contributing to campaigns, attending political events, or displaying yard signs. Active citizens increase their understanding of government, learn how to be more effective in stating their views and provide feedback to their representatives.

Imagine how campaigns would be different if citizens knew that candidates knew that they were sitting on a $50 voucher. Candidates would change their campaign strategies to attract the voters and the voucher they hold, thus increasing candidate-voter direct contact.  Rather than mainly buying TV spots, candidates would network with neighborhood organizations, attend citizen meetings and walk in local parades.

Because voters are already registered by name and address with their county clerk, voter vouchers would be rather easy to implement.

In 2008, state-wide and state legislative candidates received contributions of about $108 million with political parties and ballot measures receiving another $40 million for a total of $148 million.

A voucher of $50 per voter would almost fund all state campaigns in Missouri, but that is not really the goal. With about 4 million registered voters (but less than 3 million votes cast for president) in Missouri, the direct cost of this program would be a maximum of $200 million. That’s if all voter vouchers were to be contributed. That should become a goal: have all Missouri voters use their vouchers. That would push Missouri to become a state of active citizens.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article first appeared on The Missouri Record.

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