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Ballot Access, Not More Laws

How campaign finance laws hurt third parties.


by James Leroy Wilson
January 30, 2002

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Ballot Access, Not More Laws_James Leroy Wilson-How campaign finance laws hurt third parties. The best advice for writing a college research paper I ever received was "Don't make as your thesis something that is too obvious to mention but impossible to prove." My professor's example was his friend's attempt to prove that Supreme Court Justices let personal political ideology influence their decisions. Well, duh. But unless the Justices themselves freely admit it, how is it proven?

Ideally, ideology is for the politicians, our elected officials. They're the ones who make the laws in the first place. But with Enron's bankruptcy, and news of its diverse and large political campaign contributions, we hear renewed calls for "campaign finance reform." Politicians, our reformers say, aren't actually influenced by ideology at all, but rather by the donors of their campaigns.

This is not so obvious, yet perhaps not as hard to prove. You'd think the National Rifle Association would support candidates who have already spoken out in favor of private gun ownership, not give money to an ideological opponent in the hopes of a flip-flop. But it is where you do see flip-flops, where legislators supported one position and then vote for the opposite position, without any benefit to their own districts or states, that we can see the influence of campaign donations. For we can't fault candidates for accepting support from ideological soul-mates, nor can we prohibit flip-flops to pander to the voters. We can, however, fault candidates whose reversals defy explanation were it not for the support of certain contributors. At that point, the question of integrity should arise.

But who should ask it? The reformers want to make it even harder for ideological supporters to make campaign donations to candidates and political parties, restrict the amounts donated, and even to freely and independently express their support. But they're not the problem. Nor does blame lie with those legislators who support the same things as the people in their districts. Conservative, southern Democrats don't get elected because of special interest donations, but because their districts are conservative. The same goes for northeastern, liberal Republicans and their districts. Even though special interest contributions may be present, they do not conclusively establish corruption. When you're already a moderate, who's to prove that campaign donations moved you one way or the other?

It is not the government's, but rather the media's responsibility, if they chose, to call out the clear-cut, campaign donor-induced flip-flops. If the problem is as bad the as the reformers think, the stories, the scandals, would be on the front page every day. And if such stories were ever-present across the land, yet the corrupt incumbents kept getting re-elected, then it would be clear that the real problem is actually too many laws and too many restrictive ballot-access rules, not too few.

Because in too many, actually nearly all, Congressional districts in the United States, the voters are faced with either a "lifer" incumbent from the Democratic or Republican Party with nominal or no opposition, or a strong race between two candidates who each hope to become "lifers." Alternative voices, from the Libertarian, Green, or other parties are virtually shut out, because the laws require more voter signatures on their petitions drives than they do for Democrats and Republicans, while being held to the same campaign finance laws. So the only way to get the message across is through access to the media, which costs money. It's a downward spiral for alternative or "third" parties, deliberately and cynically created by Democrats and Republicans who fear real social and political changes for freedom and justice. Already held to stringent campaign finance laws, third party candidates can't even get their names on the ballot as easily. The public is hardly even given a chance as a "protest" vote, because the Democrats and Republicans, and the legislative bodies across the land which they control, just don't want that.

If ideological supporters, of whatever wealth, were merely allowed to spend what they desired to support their favored candidates, we wouldn't have the perceived problem of "the appearance of impropriety" that campaign-finance reformers are obsessed about. Instead, we'd see candidates bluntly say, as Ronald Reagan did about controversial supporters: "I didn't accept their money because I support them, I accepted their money because they support me."

And there is nothing wrong with that.

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