Public Pays for Elections - One Way or the Other

Unless you ask the right question, you’ll never get an answer that’s worth a damn. Public Pays for Elections – One Way or the Other

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

August 20, 2007

Unless you ask the right question, you’ll never get an answer that’s worth a damn.

Failure to use such common sense is on prominent display in the debate over the pros and cons of publicly financed elections. We’re always asked whether the public should pay for election campaigns.

Wrong question.

The only relevant question is how the public should pay. Because we always will pay one way or the other. There’s no way for us to skip out on the bill.

We can either pay for election campaigns directly – as citizens in places like Arizona and Maine and Portland, Oregon do – or we will pay for them indirectly, as we do here in Wisconsin every time we all have to pick up the tab for another favor our elected officials do for their biggest campaign donors.

The direct way has a price tag attached. Depending on the kind of system you put in place, the cost for publicly financing state elections in Wisconsin ranges from about $4 million a year on the low side to $10 million to $12 million annually on the high side. There are about 3.9 million taxpayers in Wisconsin. So we’re talking about somewhere between $1 and roughly $3 per taxpayer per year.

Yes, the direct way costs millions, but it’s a bargain compared to the indirect way. If you tally up the value of all the special interest tax breaks, pork barrel spending projects and sweetheart no-bid contracts for state work that Wisconsin politicians have been doling out to their most generous campaign contributors, as Democracy Campaign researchers have done, you come up with a list totaling more than $5 billion a year. That’s more than $1,300 for every state taxpayer each year. And that’s just state government. The same thing is happening out in Washington, D.C. to our federal government, only on a grander scale.

So we have a choice to make. We can collectively pay millions to have voter-owned elections, or we can keep paying billions for the donor-owned elections we have now. The problem is we never consciously think of that as our choice, because we’ve fallen for a false choice – namely that we can somehow get off scot-free and not pay a dime toward electing our government officials.

That false choice has been put before us very deliberately and very skillfully by the very people who are profiting at our expense from the current corrupt system. They make sure we are asked a false question – whether the public should pay for elections, not how the public should pay – based on the utter fantasy that there’s somehow a way for the public to pay no price. Then they slap every pejorative label they can think of on the idea of the public playing any role in financing election campaigns. They call it socialized campaigning and welfare for politicians. They ask us why on earth we would want our tax dollars used to help some politician sling mud. Notice they are gladly footing the bill for the smear campaigns, because then they own those politicians and are getting a handsome return on their purchase.

You have to hand it to them. They manipulate public opinion with breathtaking skill. Then they financially rape you and me, paying politicians to tax us to benefit them. And as they do it, they count on us getting even more fed up with government and even more cynical about politics. They count on us throwing up our hands and saying we don’t want anything to do with any of them. They count on us to retreat to our private lives, and leave the governing to them.

Too many of us have done what they expect us to do. And we are paying a stiff price for that.

So go ahead and say you don’t want your tax money used for their election campaigns. But they’re using it anyway, way more than you ever knew. And they’ll keep right on doing it until enough of us wise up and stop listening to their propaganda, start asking the right questions and then demanding answers that serve the public interest.