Campaign Finance Reform, With a Twist

Political candidates should spend more, not less, to reach the uninformed voter

LAST year, I ran for the state legislature in Vermont and lost.

Of all the wonderful, funny, and sobering memories I have of that experience, this one stands out: On a brisk November election day, I stood outside the polls, warmly chatting with my opponent. An older man came out of the voting place. He approached my opponent, a 10-year veteran of the legislature, slapped him on the shoulder, and said, ''I voted for you. We need some change up there.'' No matter that I was the change. His vote was cast.

Now, as another election year approaches, campaign finance reform is in the news, just as presidential candidates crouch at the starting line waiting for the guns of the big primaries to go off.

My own idea of reform is likely to be unpopular with the electorate. I say, let them have it all.

Let the candidates have all the money they can get, from wherever they can get it, with little or no restrictions. Let them spend as much as they want. Let them buy enough time to blast the airwaves, enough paper to stuff the mailboxes of America, enough web sites to overload cyberspace.

Think of the boon to the economy all that investment in ad agencies, infomercial directors, direct-mail entrepreneurs, and consultants of every flavor would produce. It would be the best economic gift any candidate could bring to elected office.

And, oh yes, as a side effect, maybe, just maybe, if candidates' messages are everywhere we turn, we'll finally start paying attention.

Does anyone doubt that we're not? Only a small fraction of eligible voters actually vote. And of those who do, how many fall into the category of the hapless and uninformed voter in the anecdote above? How many go to the polls with only the vaguest ideas of who the candidates are, what they stand for or, even more important, a vision of what good government is?

Before I get too far into throwing stones at the ''politically challenged,'' let me admit I have quite a few cardboard windows on my own glass house. Formerly a resident of Baltimore, now living in Rutland, Vt., I too used to be your average nonpolitical working stiff who knew little more than who was running for president every four years. Even then I probably couldn't tell you what party the candidate belonged to, what that party stood for, or even why parties exist. I relied on the sound bytes of ubiquitous TV news anchors to form my opinions. Local candidates? Hardly recognized their names. Maybe my losing last year's election was bad karma catching up with me.

Eventually, I ''got religion'' and became involved in a campaign for a candidate I felt strongly about. Suddenly, I was in a crash course in the purpose of government, the political process, and the vagaries of the electorate. In short, I became an informed voter, an education process I find is ongoing.

Unfortunately, evidence abounds that uninformed voters may be more the rule than the exception. Last year, as election day across the country neared, a well-intentioned mother at a local school here planned a bake sale to take advantage of the people coming to the school/polling place to vote. The problem? There were no elections in Vermont last November.

Another tale of the uniformed: Friends tell me that they know many people who regularly vote for two state senators in Vermont who are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. These two senators are sent back to the legislature term after term by unknowing voters who don't realize that the senators' votes cancel each other out on virtually every issue. Voting for both of them is, in effect, like voting for none at all.

As these stories illustrate, maybe the problem isn't that candidates spend too much money. Maybe they aren't spending enough to get their messages out.

Yet, ironically, we jeer at candidates who spend money as if it were made of the leaves of November. We jeer when they spend their own millions, saying they are trying to buy the office. We jeer when others contribute millions of dollars, saying the candidate is the one being bought. But until voters go to the candidate and other sources for information on a regular basis, the candidate will have to go, and go, and go again - like some maniacal Energizer politician - to the voter.

And going to the voter is, after all, expensive. Advertising costs on television are astronomical. Full page ads can easily run in the five figures. Radio, though less expensive, still adds costs to the bottom line, especially when repetition is a key part of the message strategy.

So I say, let them have as much money as they want and get it from wherever they want - the National Rifle Association, the National Organization for Women, their own pockets, or those of the ladies club down the street. Until we see that being an informed voter is the key to campaign finance reform, candidates need all the money they can get.

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