Supreme Court, campaign finance, and civic literacy
As the Supreme Court weighs the latest challenge to a campaign finance law, reformers must also challenge the view that voters are 'civic slackers.'
(Page 2 of 2)
Reformers who want to limit or at least equalize campaign spending should not treat voters as “civic slackers,” a term coined by University of Virginia law professor Daniel Ortiz.Skip to next paragraph
Gallery Monitor Political Cartoons
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“The reformers’ assumption that equality of opportunity to persuade requires equal resources makes sense only if the reformers believe that voters – those being persuaded – do not carefully reason their way through their decisions,” writes Mr. Ortiz. “In other words, the reformers must believe that many of us resemble civic slackers more than we should.”
No doubt voters may find today’s politics too complex. One recent Pennsylvania ballot had 28 judges listed, all competing to stay in office. The federal government now has many conflicting parts and demands. Americans may think their one vote may not make much difference or justify keeping informed. Issues such as tax reform and health care require far more understanding than the simple government of an earlier America.
Voters need help in engaging politics. Campaigns ads often don’t help and may even turn off voters from going to the polls.
Reformers of the electoral system need to look for new ideas.
For starters, government must become more accountable to ensure voters keep a civic interest. Stanford University professor James Fishkin suggests the idea of a national holiday before every election in which voters are paid to gather in small groups to discuss campaign issues. The holiday would be called Deliberation Day.
The Supreme Court itself reinforced the notion of voters as capable citizens in one part of its 2010 Citizens United ruling. Eight of the justices voted to uphold the required disclosure of the names of groups or individuals who spend money influencing an election. This transparency will aid voters to weigh the different speakers and messages, the court stated, and to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.
Viewing voters as capable of citizenship might go far in reducing the influence of money in politics. This sort of shift in thinking occurred in the mid-1990s when Congress decided to require welfare recipients to find a job after five years of dependency on government. To the surprise of many, the idea worked, defying the view that those on the dole will remain on the dole.
Like a football coach or a teacher, reformers of government must expect more of citizens and not see them as “slackers.” Running a democracy, as Alexander Hamilton said, requires “reflection and choice.” Voters may be more ready to reflect and choose than the political elite now imagine.