US democracy: a bargain

In the United States, democracy is a bargain. The cost of wooing a vote - $3.25 per eligible voter in the 1979-80 election cycle for the congressional and presidential contests - was less than the $4 admission to a local movie.

And contrary to the general impression, American election costs per eligible voter are actually less than in other modern democracies, particularly when government-mandated free radio and TV time are factored in for those nations.

This isn't to say that Americans should be content with the financial side of their election process. The system protects the incumbent, with franking privileges for congressmen, for example.

The rise of PACs should be watched: These political-action committees, which pool contributions from interest groups, have found a useful and permanent place in American politics, but they have the potential to skew elections and unduly influence legislation.

How the hundreds of millions of dollars are spent is significant, too; the preponderance of spending goes for brief television ads, which hardly lead toward a reasoned, detailed comparison of candidate stands on issues.

Still, it just isn't true that, based on relative population size, the United States political system is more costly than other systems. A study by Howard R. Penniman in the latest Public Opinion shows, in addition, that US campaign finance laws are by far the most advanced, permitting closer scrutiny of campaign contributions and spending than is now possible elsewhere.

Venezuela spent $26 per eligible voter in its 1983 elections, more than eight times the US figure. At that rate, US political parties and candidates would have spent $4 billion instead of $514 million on the 1980 federal elections.

France, whose process of voting twice in selecting the president and legislators resembles the US primary and runoff system, is an enigma where voting costs are concerned. Campaign finance data is simply unavailable. This is the situation in Scandinavian countries, too, where no reports on campaign receipts and outlays are required.

Such reports in Sweden and Norway are believed to violate the voter's right to privacy, ballot secrecy, and party autonomy. Disclosing a contributor's name, Scandinavians believe, could lead to either persecution or preferential treatment. Australians actually repealed campaign finance laws after the 1980 election, in face of a challenge that would have compelled politicians to observe unrealistic provisions written in 1927 but largely ignored since.

Irish elections, at $3.93 a head, run a little more per voter than US elections, even without adding in the cost of television. Canadian outlays in 1979-80 were about 8 cents less than US elections, again without including free broadcast media time. In the United States, where most radio and television broadcasting is in private hands, media advertising costs must be borne by the candidate's campaign.

In part to nurture its democratic political structure, the West German government heavily subsidizes political parties and party-related foundations - to the tune of $1.85 for each vote a party won in the 1983 elections. Tax credits are also granted for private campaign donations. As a result, the 1983 West German elections cost more than double a comparable US congressional race - again excluding free broadcast media time and subsidies for party research.

Of the 20 countries with at least 1.5 million voters and 25 years of continuous democracy, nearly half require no reports from parties or candidates whatever, the Penniman study discloses. Half the rest have laws so limited in scope or enforcement that political spending practices are sunk in murk.

US campaign finance practices have been heavily influenced by Watergate. The Federal Election Commission is not adequately funded. The system relies on media attention, which in its zeal can carry the demand for disclosure beyond what the law requires: Ask Geraldine Ferraro about that.

The US campaign finance system should and will evolve further. But American voters can still look forward to their vote this November as quite a bargain.

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