Mar 31, 2015

If.Then.Fund and the 28th Amendment

Prof. Laurence Lessig had come up with a proposal, an alternative campaign finance structure, that would set forth a $50 tax credit to every registered voter. The tax credit could only be used to contribute to a candidate's campaign. En masse 149 million registered voters would finance all elections with the $7.4 billions of contributions (if all of the tax credit was expended), making the funding of electoral campaigns fully decentralized and democratized without any individual supporting a candidate involuntarily. This would have the following benefits: elected officials would no longer be beholden to the billionaire & multimillionaire donors that currently fund their campaigns for office, elected officials would be responsive to constituents as their will would need to be heeded to garner their contributions, Super PACs-Corporations-legal entities of all sorts will be returned the sidelines of our republic, and candidates that aren't wealthy or have social network of wealthy individuals would have access to being representing their fellow citizens. The downside, or my interpretation of a downside, for this campaign finance proposal is that every elected official and wannabe elected official would be a tornado of self-promotional pandering flacks, still not resolved to bring the needed solutions to their constituents.

I came across if.then.fund, a start-up that is seeking to amplify the influence of small donors and couple the votes of Congress with campaign contributions. Below are quotes from their 'about' page to give an idea of what they are trying to achieve




Shaping the next Congress

Your donations go toward the reelection campaign of current members of Congress when they vote the way you want, or toward their next general election opponent if they vote the other way. if.then.fund helps you “keep ’em in” or “throw ’em out” in the next election, shaping the make-up of the next Congress to be more aligned with your views.


Targeting real outcomes


Instead of making an aspirationation donation to a candidate, campaign contributions made here on if.then.fund are based on what legislators actually do, not what they say they will do. if.then.fund routes your contributions to members of Congress who vote the way you want and to the opponents of those who do not. By being targeted, your contributions will be more effective at supporting candidates with similar views to your own.

So the next improvement on both these ideas, in my humble opinion is to combine them. Imagine if each bill was tied to the elected official's campaign coffers and everyone of his constituents were involved in expressing their opinion about their legislator's vote. When legislation came up that was fully innocuous (renaming a post office) there would be no contributions from constituents coming in and their wouldn't be a partisan divide, but when a bill such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), or NY SAFE Act (NY State's controversial gun-control legislation) the constituents would make their voice heard and put their buck (more likely quarter due to the number opportunities to contribute) where their mouth is. Through multiple pieces of legislation, the campaign coffers would either fill up for the elected official or they would be empty with a war chest filled for his general election opponent, this wouldn't dictate explicitly the results of the election but the more contributions his constituents receive the more mailers, radio ads, and TV ads they will be able to pay for to explain their votes and their vision.

A platform like if.then.fund could be implemented in such away that each registered voter could check into the service and see what votes are coming infront of their elected officials with a rationale for why the elected official is voting the way they are voting along with statements from the sponsor of legislation and declared opposition of the legislation. As constituents aren't obligated to participate, just as they aren't obligated to vote, they only participate when they support or oppose legislation that they are animated by an issue. This would have the benefit that elected officials could differ with a majority of their constituents occasionally if it were a matter of principle but the elected official couldn't deviate too often without being assured that his/her re-election will go down in flames.

I would add an additional restriction to Lessig's proposal, and that would be to limit contributions from constituents of candidates and elected officials only; banning out of state and out of district contributions is essential from preventing outside influence. So in case an issue that is explicitly local gets twisted into a national issue, as in the recent "World Trade Mosque" which was approved by the local community board but opposed by millions of people that would never set foot in Manhattan but would have contributed towards the opposition and yet never would have had skin in the game. Decisions being made by those that have skin in the game is the point of democracy (and capitalism too if one were to read the Father of Capitalism Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations).

Modern electoral campaigns have a need for paid-for staff in most cases and at minimum postage and printing costs for mailers to deliver the candidate's message to prospective voters. Current modus oprendi is that a vast majority of campaigns' funding comes from the ever slimmest of the population; the rarest of individuals that have discretionary funds to pay for these campaigns aren't equally distributed and aren't in large part trying to exert their political will but instead attempting to gain economic advantages that can be categorized as 'rent seeking' or 'crony capitalism'. To transform the current status to the desired goal would require a Constitutional Amendment, but states could set up campaign finance regimes such as this prior to a Constitutional Amendment barring non-constituents from funding campaigns. Though there would still remain outside funding, the publicly finance campaigns would be available only to those that forgo outside funding as is the case in Arizona and Maine's Clean Elections. Having the additional benefit that some amount of funding would be available for any challenger to run against the incumbent would create an incentive for challenging every incumbent instead of as it is now that a vast majority of elected officials are never challenged
in their general election. This form of public finance would also have the benefit that the constituents would be empowered over their elected representatives so that their will be carried out; the intended purpose of representative republic and a democratic form of governance. This also sidesteps the legitimate and often stated criticism of public finance: "why should my tax dollars go towards a candidate I disagree with, or not even going to vote for?" Tax dollars would be distributed exactly in proportion to the level of support of the constituents, though if the constituents changed their mind regarding the legislation (or several pieces of legislation) then they would have financially supported a candidate that they by election day won't support with a vote.

With a two-party system this form of public financing would also provide the ability to fund 3rd party legislative candidates. For example, the NY SAFE Act State Senator intends to vote in favor of the gun control law, his constituents that oppose gun control but also both major parties can assign a portion of their credit to support the Libertarian candidate whomever that turns out to be in following election. The Libertarian Party Committee is then able to recruit a candidate with the knowledge that they will have at minimum such-and-such amount of money that the constituents contributed in opposition to the incumbent State Senator. A similar scenario could be made for a State Senator who voted against NY SAFE Act and could pledge their funds for the Green Party opponent.

In New York State there is odd trait within electoral laws known as Fusion balloting, where a candidate can be on the ballot multiple times and the aggregated votes received across all party lines determine the total vote count. Republican candidates routinely receive the Conservative Party ballot line along with the Republican Party line; as does Democratic party vote totals are often supplemented with the Working Families Party votes. The question arises how does one deal with funds that are assigned by constituents to oppose a sitting Republican legislator and intended for a Conservative Party opponent which turns out to be the same Senator our constituent opposes or a Democratic legislator with constituent intending to support an opposing Working Families Party (WFP) candidate? Though there is no simple answer, I would let such funds roll over from election to election until a candidate that opposed the major party candidate. I put this caveat forward in the likely scenario that a incumbent who is too moderate for the Conservative Party supporter or WFP supporter leaves office the local minor party doesn't simply get to subsidized the major party candidate who is now running for an open seat. Though discussing these minor details, I must admit I'm not as attached to these particular reforms as much as the funding of the opposition of the major party and reducing the effect of non-constituent funding.

In the case of the Governor, the ability of constituents (any registered voter of the state) to demonstrate their support of opposition of a bill would be able to fund either 'signing the bill into law' or 'vetoing the bill' again with some mechanism to fund opposition candidates in the next general election. In the 2014 election of Andrew Cuomo, this would have tied WFP's hands in attempting to saber rattle progressive opposition to get a better deal negotiated with the governor. Threats to raise up an alternative candidate as a means to bolster the party coffers would not be an empty threat anymore, after such a reform at least, since all the funds raised in opposition to the incumbent ro establishment candidate would be committed to an alternative candidate.

Feel free to critique, comment and add to the idea below.