A 5-step program to restore democracy in Wisconsin.
Power to the Voter
A 5-step program to restore democracy in Wisconsin
Posted: November 9, 2004
Updated: December 6, 2007
- Truth in campaigning - full and prompt disclosure of all election-related activities.
- Voter-owned elections - a level playing field for candidates and control back in the hands of voters through comprehensive campaign finance reform providing public financing of election campaigns.
Unleashed watchdogs - independent ethics and campaign finance law enforcement by restructuring the state Elections Board and Ethics Board into a single agency with expanded enforcement powers and more resources, under the direction of a politically independent board.
- Tamper-proof voting districts - more competitive elections and more civility among lawmakers by ending partisan gerrymandering of districts through the creation of an independent reapportionment commission or a redistricting process such as Iowa’s
- Free choice voting - more choices for voters, no more “wasted votes” or “spoiler” candidates and less negative campaigning through a system of instant runoff voting or other similar voting reforms.
Governor Jim Doyle summed up the state of ethics in Wisconsin government best in his January 2003 inaugural address: “At a time when too many Americans are feeling more and more disillusioned with government, their elected leaders and public service - I am sad to say that perhaps no state has fallen farther, fallen faster than Wisconsin.”
Six of the state’s most powerful political leaders have been criminally charged - and one convicted so far - in what qualifies as the biggest political corruption scandal in Wisconsin’s history. The criminal indictments include nearly four dozen felony charges ranging from extortion and money laundering to kickbacks and bid rigging.
The problem, though, is not a few bad apples. The real problem is a system that is rotten to the core. The common thread running through almost all of the criminal charges is the chase for campaign money. The campaign arms race is breeding political corruption by making it so expensive to run for many public offices that candidates increasingly either have to be independently wealthy or willing to take out a second mortgage on their souls. The system produces state elected officials far more beholden to their cash constituents than their voting constituents.
|In a democracy, elected officials serve the public best when they serve in fear of what might happen in the next election. That healthy fear of the electorate is lost when voters have little or no choice on the ballot.|
Spending on state election campaigns reachedrecord levels in 2002 - including $23 million spent on the governor’s race, nearly three times the previous record set four years earlier - yet campaign fundraising increased another 55 percent as state office holders filled campaign war chests in preparation for the 2004 elections. Heading into the stretch drive of the 2004 campaign, incumbents had raised $9 for every $1 challengers had.
The grotesque fundraising advantage enjoyed by incumbents, coupled with politically gerrymandered legislative districts favoring incumbent lawmakers, have produced an epidemic of uncontested state legislative races. In 1970, there were no uncontested races for the Assembly or Senate. As recently as the mid-1980s, only one in seven legislative races was uncontested. In 2004, more than 2 million voters had no choice of who represents them in the Senate or Assembly because there was only one name on the November ballot.
In a democracy, elected officials serve the public best when they serve in fear of what might happen in the next election. That healthy fear of the electorate is lost when the daunting cost of running for office prices so many prospective candidates out of the political marketplace, leaving voters with little or no choice on the ballot. The loss of accountability that is the natural byproduct of uncompetitive elections invites political arrogance and is a recipe for corruption.
A Better Way
Sunshine is the most powerful disinfectant. Corralling political corruption and restoring ethical integrity to the democratic process in Wisconsin starts with truth in campaigning. That means shining light in dark places, giving voters what 90 percent supported in a 2000 referendum, namely “full and prompt disclosure of election related activities.” It means honoring the public’s right to know who is bankrolling campaigns, how much is being given, and where the money comes from.
Wisconsin has strayed far from this ideal. A gaping loophole in the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws permitting electioneering under the guise of “issue advocacy” is allowing special interest groups to skirt disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits. Millions of dollars in unlimited and anonymous donations are being made to influence state elections. Wisconsin’s disclosure laws, limitations on campaign donations and the century-old prohibition of corporate campaign contributions all have been rendered functionally meaningless by the “issue ad” loophole.
|Restoring authentic democracy in Wisconsin can be achieved with the enactment of campaign finance reform legislation that does what nine out of 10 voters supported in the 2000 referendum.|
This desecration of Wisconsin’s tradition of a clean and open democratic process can and should be stopped immediately. The U.S. Supreme Court’s December 2003 ruling in McConnell v. FEC unequivocally upheld the constitutionality of full disclosure of issue ads as well as a ban on unlimited, anonymous donations known as “soft money.”
A top-to-bottom cleansing of Wisconsin’s campaign finance system begins with truth in campaigning but does not end there. Restoring authentic democracy in Wisconsin requires voters to reclaim ownership of state election campaigns. Replacing the donor-owned elections of today with voter-owned elections can be achieved with the enactment of campaign finance reform legislation that does what nine out of 10 voters in the 2000 referendum supported - limit campaign spending and require stricter contribution limits.
States such as Arizona and Maine have put in place systems of full public financing of state election campaigns, with promising results. Under these new “Clean Money” systems, elections in both states have been marked by more competition and more diverse candidate pools, and candidates report being able to spend more time with regular voters as well as freedom from conflicts of interest. The reforms also have greatly expanded the universe of contributors by increasing the number of contributors as well as their geographic, economic and ethnic diversity.
Public financing systems have proven track records in other states, too. Unlike Wisconsin, neighboring Minnesota has kept its longstanding system of partial public financing in good working order. The results are striking. Only eight races in Minnesota’s 134-member House of Representatives were uncontested this year, while Wisconsin had more than four times that many uncontested races for its smaller, 99-member Assembly.
Reform Without Enforcement is Empty Promise
Even the best campaign finance reforms will accomplish nothing if they are not faithfully implemented and rigorously enforced. The state Elections Board has failed to enforce Wisconsin’s current campaign finance laws and cannot be trusted to implement or enforce new reforms. That is because the Elections Board is controlled by the political power brokers it is supposed to regulate and needs a major overhaul to effectively serve the public interest.
Elections Board members are political appointees hand picked by the state’s top political leaders. The governor and the four legislative leaders - the Senate majority and minority leaders and the Assembly speaker and minority leader - each make an appointment. So do the state Democratic and Republican parties. The remaining two appointments currently are made by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin.
The Elections Board’s track record reinforces its reputation as a classic example of the fox guarding the hen house. Although a “Citizens Right to Know” law enacted in 1998 required the Board to create a system of electronic filing of campaign reports by July 1999, it took four years - and the threat of a lawsuit seeking a court order - for the Elections Board to adopt an emergency rule implementing the law.
|Even the best campaign finance reforms will accomplish nothing if they are not faithfully implemented and rigorously enforced.|
The Board ignored an open invitation from the state Supreme Court in 1999 to craft new regulations closing the loophole in Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws that special interest groups have exploited to avoid state disclosure requirements by running so-called “issue ads.” Instead of acting to shore up porous disclosure laws and restore meaning to campaign contribution limits, the Board has repeatedly refused to approve proposed truth-in-campaigning regulations and instead opted for a rule institutionalizing the loophole for special interest groups. In 2001, the Board significantly widened the loophole when it ruled that state political parties also can avoid campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements in Wisconsin law by running “issue ads.”
The Elections Board dropped a 2001 investigation into allegations of illegal campaign contributions by legislative employees without contacting individuals with evidence of unlawful activity, and then entered into an agreement with the state Ethics Board and legislative leaders that eliminated the scandal-plagued legislative caucus offices but also authorized increasing the size of the leaders’ staffs.
One of the worst things about the caucuses is that they became powerful instruments of control in the hands of legislative leaders. The leadership-controlled caucuses, together with leadership-run legislative campaign committees, played a central role in transforming the Wisconsin Legislature from one of the most decentralized in the country to one of the most centrally controlled. Agreeing to a substantial increase in the size of leaders’ staffs was hardly a remedy for that problem. Also missing from the deal the Elections Board and Ethics Board agreed to was personal accountability for abuse of taxpayer money and the damage legislative leaders and the caucus offices they directed did to the integrity of the political process and the health of democracy in Wisconsin.
While the Elections Board dropped its investigation before entering into the agreement with legislative leaders, the Ethics Board never started one. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for this agency, whose members are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. While the Ethics Board deserves good marks for its work in the area of lobbying disclosure, it shrinks from its duty to rigorously enforce the state ethics code and seemingly has never met a conflict of interest it didn’t condone.
|The Elections Board and Ethics Board regularly shrink from their duty to enforce Wisconsin’s ethics code and campaign finance laws.|
For example, the Ethics Board saw no conflict of interest in two state lawmakers with closepersonal, political and financial ties to Strong Financial Corporation serving on the state College Savings Program Board that oversees the exclusive contract Strong was given to manage the state’s EdVest college savings program. The company and its CEO agreed last May to $175 million in fines to settle federal charges of illegal trading, but the board kept Strong on to run the EdVest program. The two legislators - one of whom is a former Strong employee with much of his net worth tied up in Strong funds to this day - remain on the College Savings Program Board. The Ethics Board continues to see no conflict of interest.
If Wisconsin is to hold out hope for truly unleashed watchdogs devoted to independent ethics and campaign finance law enforcement, the see-no-evil approach of the state Elections Board and Ethics Board won’t do. Reform of these agencies is a must.
Voters Should Choose Representatives, Not the Other Way Around
One of the largely untold stories behind not only the epidemic of uncontested state legislative races but also the polarization of politics in Wisconsin is gerrymandering of districts - that is, drawing oddly shaped districts for personal or partisan advantage. The crassly political way district maps are drawn using sophisticated computer technology favors current office holders by creating districts whose partisan makeup mirrors the incumbents’ partisan affiliation.
Like Wisconsin’s broken campaign finance system, the problem of how state legislative districts are redrawn after a census is not unique to Wisconsin. Nationally, partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts is so pervasive that no more than 30 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are considered competitive. All the rest have been drawn in a way that makes them “safe” seats for the incumbent office holders.
|Gerrymandered districts make it harder to get fresh blood and new ideas into the Legislature. They also further polarize legislative politics.|
At the state level in Wisconsin, the problem is nearly as acute thanks to the Legislature’s creative map making. Of the 132 seats in the Wisconsin Legislature, fewer than 20 are remotely competitive. Lopsided districts demoralize voters and make it harder to get fresh blood and new ideas into the Legislature. They also further polarize legislative politics. If most voters in a district are Democrats, candidates will concentrate solely on appealing to Democrats; vice versa in districts where Republicans dominate. Squeezed out are candidates with more moderate leanings who might appeal to independents or voters of both parties. The result is a Legislature of fierce partisans, with fewer members who seek the middle ground that can serve as a basis of compromise to get the public’s business done.
Reforms ending partisan gerrymandering and creating tamper-proof voting districts would do much to put voters back in the driver’s seat and diminish the political rancor and partisan gridlock that have become hallmarks of the Wisconsin Legislature in recent years.
Let the People Decide
Just as campaign finance disparities and lopsided, gerrymandered districts serve to suppress competition and demoralize voters, so does the way ballots are cast. A vote should reflect a voter’s true preference, yet our current system leaves many voters feeling trapped into voting for the lesser of two evils, fretting about casting a “wasted” vote or venting anger toward “spoiler” candidates. In the end, the democratic principle of majority rule is frustrated as winning candidates often are elected by a mere plurality of voters rather than by an actual majority. This breeds further voter disenchantment.
It need not be this way. Countries like Australia, Great Britain and Ireland use preferential voting systems that more accurately reflect the will of the public. Several American communities use such systems for their local elections, and the Utah Republican Party uses preferential voting to nominate candidates for Congress.
Free choice voting systems such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) ask voters to rank candidates in order of preference. IRV gives voters a wider range of choices, eliminates wasted votes and the spoiler factor with independent or third-party candidates, saves taxpayer money by eliminating the need for primary elections, and creates a powerful incentive to avoid negative campaigning by rewarding not only the most-preferred but also the least-disliked candidates.
Openness in Wisconsin government and integrity in state politics starts with full and prompt disclosure of all election-related activities.
Chapter 11 of Wisconsin’s statutes governing campaign finances was relevant until 1996. That year, Wisconsin saw its first so-called “issue ads” run by special interest groups in the days and weeks leading up to the fall elections. Unlike true issue advocacy, which focuses on discussing matters of public interest and articulating a position on those issues, phony issue ads are electioneering communications that clearly identify candidates and plainly aim to persuade voters to support or oppose candidates. But they carefully avoid using terms such as “vote for,” “vote against,” “elect” or “defeat.” Instead, sham issue ads make often misleading claims about candidates and conclude with statements such as “Call Jim Doyle today.and tell him you want to keep your job. No more new taxes.”
Thanks to this semantic two-step, sponsors of such campaign ads are not required to file reports of their activities with the state Elections Board. Because they do not have to disclose their fundraising, they are free to use campaign funds that would be illegal under Wisconsin law if disclosed. The amount of money flowing through this pipeline grew by more than 1,600 percent from 1996 to 2002. Because of the difficulty in tracking this below-the-radar activity, it will be many months before reliable estimates of issue ad spending can be made for the 2004 elections. Issue advocacy has become the loophole that has devoured Wisconsin’s once-effective campaign finance disclosure laws. Chapter 11 is now functionally meaningless and voters increasingly are left in the dark about who’s really paying for state election campaigns.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in December 2003 that this loophole can and should be closed. The Wisconsin Supreme Court had already ruled in a 1999 case that either the Legislature or the Elections Board can close the loophole, and the Legislature’s own attorneys agree. There is bipartisan support for such action. In the 2001-2003 session, 69 Republican and Democratic legislators - a majority of the 132-member Legislature - voted in favor of at least one of two bills requiring full disclosure of special interest issue ads. At one time or the other, five of the nine members of the state Elections Board have supported a proposed rule requiring full disclosure of these campaign ads.
Either legislation modeled after 2001 Senate Bill 2 or Assembly Bill 18 or the proposed disclosure rule considered by the Elections Board earlier this year would restore truth in campaigning in Wisconsin.
Specifically, Wisconsin law needs to mirror the court-upheld federal law by defining communications made within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election that identify a candidate for office as “electioneering communications” made for a political purpose, thereby subjecting them to disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits.
Who pays for election campaigns determines who can competitively run for public office and who can’t. After the elections, those who bankroll the campaigns call the tune in public policy debates. Taking back state government from the elite campaign donors will require the general public to reclaim ownership of election campaigns.
Political campaigns cost money, and taxpayers pay for those campaigns one way or the other. They can either pay for the cost of election campaigns directly through a system of public financing, or they will indirectly pay much more for the cost of perks and political favors handed to big campaign donors.
Both Republicans and Democrats have offered legislation that would fix Wisconsin’s broken campaign finance system and put voters back in the driver’s seat. Most notable among these proposals are two introduced in the 2003 legislative session - Senate Bill 12 and Assembly Bill 825. While quite different, both bills represent major reform, and either would meaningfully address corruption at the Capitol and favorably alter the state’s electoral landscape.
Replacing donor-owned elections with voter-owned elections can be achieved for as little as $1 a year per taxpayer with the enactment of comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation modeled after SB 12 or AB 825 that at a bare minimum:
- Levels the playing field for all candidates for state office by providing public grants from a Clean Election Fund to candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending.
To be effective in lowering barriers to participation in the electoral process and increasing competitiveness in state elections, the public financing grants should be at least $1,350,000 to candidates for governor; $45,000 to state Senate candidates; and $22,500 to Assembly candidates. The amount of the grants should be regularly adjusted to account for inflation.
- Tightens limits on campaign contributions.
The limit on contributions from individuals to candidates for statewide office should be reduced from the current $10,000 to no more than $1,000. The limit for donations to Senate candidates should be reduced from $1,000 to no more than $500, and the Assembly limit should be reduced from $500 to no more than $250. These lower contribution limits also should apply to political action committees (PACs). The limit on what individuals can give to all state and local campaigns in a calendar year should be reduced from the current annual limit of $10,000 to no more than $5,000.
- Bans campaign fundraising during legislative floor periods and during the entire state budget process, and prohibits contributions from the officers and executives of companies doing business with the state.
- Provides a guaranteed source of funding for the public financing system so that candidates willing to limit their campaign spending receive the public grants they are promised under the law.
- Opens up the electoral process to all prospective candidates by eliminating the discriminatory “6% Rule” that denies third party or independent candidates needed campaign resources, thereby preventing voters from hearing a broader range of views on campaign issues and limiting their choice of candidates.
Requiring candidates to win their party primary with at least 6% of the total votes cast in all primaries for that office in order to qualify for public financing puts third party or independent candidates at an overwhelming competitive disadvantage. Because Wisconsin does not have truly open primary elections allowing crossover voting, it is practically impossible for third party or independent candidates to reach the 6% threshold to qualify for public financing.
Qualifying for a public grant from the Clean Election Fund should be based only on a candidate’s ability to gather enough nominating signatures to earn a place on the ballot and collect a modest number of small contributions from people living within the district or jurisdiction in which the candidate is seeking office.
- Requires full and prompt disclosure of all election-related activities, including all campaign ads identifying a candidate that is run within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election.
- Gives candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending the means to respond to special interest attacks by providing supplemental grants that match the special interest spending dollar for dollar.
- Reduces the control legislative leaders have over rank-and-file members of the Legislature by eliminating leadership-controlled legislative campaign committees and by prohibiting candidate-to-candidate transfers.
- Reduces the advantage incumbent lawmakers have over challengers by prohibiting the accumulation of campaign war chests. After an election, candidates should be required to return unspent campaign contributions to the donors or donate them to the Clean Election Fund.
- Restricts bundling of individual campaign contributions by treating special interest “conduit” committees the same as political action committees and thereby subjecting them to the same contribution limits as PACs and individuals.
- Reduces outside influence over Wisconsin lawmakers by requiring that contributions from outside the state come only from individuals or from committees registered with the Federal Elections Commission.
Ethical standards in Wisconsin politics have been allowed to slip and corruption is taking root at the Capitol. A big part of the problem is that the watchdog agencies are muzzled.
In order to restore the integrity and independence of the Elections Board and Ethics Board as regulatory agencies, the way board members are selected needs to be changed and a beefed-up staff as well as an independent source of funding for investigations are needed.
Reforms need to remedy the intense partisanship that has taken root on the Elections Board, address the inherent conflict of interest in having Board members appointed by political leaders they are supposed to regulate, and break the stranglehold the two major political parties have on the Board. And they must address who controls investigatory purse strings. For example, the Ethics Board does not have a budget for investigation expenses and must seek funding from the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance each time it contemplates an ethics investigation. This arrangement does not lend itself to independent and aggressive enforcement of the ethics code.
A blueprint for reform of ethics and campaign finance law enforcement was provided in the 2003-2004 legislative session in the form of Senate Bill 11. Sponsored by 12 legislative Republicans and two Democrats, SB 11 would have abolished both the Elections Board and Ethics Board and replaced them with a single, more politically independent enforcement agency.
Under the bill, the composition of the board overseeing the new agency would have included appointees from each state political party with ballot status, plus four public members appointed from a list compiled by a nonpartisan committee consisting of the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the deans of the UW and Marquette Law Schools, and the chief officers of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Newspaper Association, State Bar of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Towns Association and League of Wisconsin Municipalities. The proposed legislation provided a sum sufficient appropriation for the agency’s operation as well as additional enforcement staff.
Other improvements in ethics enforcement also are needed in light of the decline in government ethics in Wisconsin - including a stricter “revolving door” policy preventing departing state officials from quickly moving into the lobbying corps, a prohibition against campaign donations from state contractors, a ban on the use of campaign contributions for personal legal defense funds, and tighter restrictions on the role of lobbyists soliciting, collecting and passing along campaign contributions from their clients.
Voters should choose their elected representatives, not the other way around. Wisconsin does not have to look far to see a way to end partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts and create more competitive elections and more partisan cooperation.
The term “gerrymander” - the rearrangement of voting districts to favor the party in power - dates back to the beginning of the republic. The goal of majority party leaders is to maximize the number of districts where voters favoring them outnumber voters loyal to the opposition. This is done by concentrating the voting power of the opposition into just a few districts or diluting the opposition’s voting power across many districts. Extremely irregular boundary lines are sometimes necessary to achieve the desired results. The tactic is named for former U.S. vice president Elbridge Gerry, who as Massachusetts governor in 1811 reconfigured election districts in his party’s favor by fashioning one district in a grotesque shape resembling a salamander, inspiring his political opponents to coin the phrase describing the political maneuver in his honor.
The practice remains good for politicians but lethal to representative democracy. Today, modern technology has lent new precision to the art of redistricting - and taken gerrymandering to new lows. Partisan leaders use sophisticated computerized mapping to handpick their voters. Public awareness of how little say citizens have in who represents them in the Legislature is a recipe for voter cynicism. And one-sided districts promote partisan extremism, producing a Legislature heavy on ideologues and light on pragmatists. The result is more demagoguery and less compromise or problem solving.
Neighboring Iowa offers a unique and appealing alternative. Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency redraws the districts, using four criteria - equal population, contiguity, compactness, and unity of counties and cities. By law, the agency must ignore such factors as previous election results, the addresses of incumbents, or any other demographic information. Not coincidentally, races for Iowa’s five U.S. House seats are competitive, the only state that can make that claim.
Other redistricting reforms include vesting power in an independent commission, requiring a supermajority of legislators to approve new political maps, or even creating multi-member districts. A proposal - 2003 Assembly Joint Resolution 47 - introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature called for a study of legislativeand congressional redistricting after each census conducted by an independent citizen commission. AJR 47 also called for study of systems in Iowa, Arizona, New Jersey and any other states that have successfully redistricted using independent citizen commissions or similar structures.
If Wisconsin wants a democracy worthy of the name, a way needs to be found to curb the excesses of partisan redistricting. There is no need for further study. Proven models are out there - one right in our backyard.
Too many voters feel forced to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of evils at election time. That need not happen. There is a better way.
There is a system of voting used in other democratic countries and in some U.S. communities that enhances a voter’s freedom to choose, eliminates “wasted” votes and “spoiler” candidates, discourages negative campaigning, and saves taxpayer money all at the same time. Yet Wisconsin is not seriously considering it.
Legislation was introduced in the 2003-2004 session by three Republicans and three Democrats to allow the use of such a system - known as preferential or instant runoff voting - for local nonpartisan races in Wisconsin. The proposal, Assembly Bill 911, did not receive so much as a public hearing.
Too bad. Preferential voting has great potential to reinvigorate democracy, reduce voter cynicism and thereby boost sagging voter confidence in elections. Wisconsin should at the very least experiment with it.
Here’s how it works:
Whenever there are three or more candidates for an office or seat to be filled at an election, voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. In cases where there is no initial majority winner, a runoff recount can be conducted without a new election to determine which candidate is actually preferred by a majority of voters. Instead of just casting one vote for one candidate, voters rank the candidates as their first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes from these ballots are then redistributed to the other candidates. The ballots are recounted, and candidates are eliminated in this fashion until a winner emerges with a majority of the vote.
Preferential voting has several advantages over Wisconsin’s current system of voting. Its strengths include:
- Ensuring the winner has the support of the majority of voters. Currently, candidates can be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, leaving doubt as to whether they have a mandate for their policies.
- Allowing more candidates, including independents and third-party candidates, to get involved in races without being accused of being “spoilers.” Preferential voting not only gives voters more freedom to choose, it also eliminates the “wasted vote” dilemma many voters agonize over.
- Discouraging negative campaigning. To win, candidates need to get some second and third place votes, as well as first place votes. They’sl be less likely to attack their opponents if they need support from their opponents’ voters.
- Saving money. Preferential voting eliminates the need for primary elections. Fewer elections, less cost to taxpayers.
- Honoring the independence of Wisconsin voters. Currently, the large ranks of independent voters are not allowed to “cross over” in primary elections - that is, vote for one party’s candidate for one office and another party’s candidate in a different race - because Wisconsin does not have truly open primary elections. This limitation on a voter’s freedom to choose does not exist with preferential voting.