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.'

Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon follows Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska after an April 23 news conference on Capitol Hill in which they announced a bill on campaign finance reform.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case challenging a limit on the number of contributions that individuals can give to federal candidates and political parties. If the court rules as it did in a similar case in 2010, another decades-old campaign-finance reform will be sent to the legal ash heap. And more cash will flow into the campaign war chests of politicians.

The big worry in such rulings is that more elected leaders will do the bidding of those who donate the most campaign money. Government will be further skewed toward the interests of those with the most dollars, such as unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals of both the left and right.

While such official corruption may erode trust in democracy, advocates of campaign-finance reform should start to ask a new question if the high court again affirms a right to free expression in campaign financing, as it did in the 2010 Citizens United ruling.

The question is this: Are voters really so ignorant that candidates will simply keep amassing ever-more money to pay for political ads that are slick, negative, or emotionally manipulative?

The “father” of the Constitution, James Madison, warned that “a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Scholars and pollsters have long probed voters on their ability to participate in the free exchange of ideas required for a deliberative democracy. They often come away disappointed.

Yet a person’s level of political knowledge generally increases with more education, income, and media savvy, such as reading the news and using the Internet. Over the past century, those key indicators have improved.

Still, political strategists and campaign-finance reformers often simply assume a high level of voter ignorance. It is a regular source of jokes on late-night comedy TV, such as Jay Leno's “Jaywalking” segment on "The Tonight Show."

When candidates see voters as either ill informed or misinformed – or even stupid – their ads often reflect that. But voters aren’t clueless. They do not want to be targets of the latest tools in psychology and mass marketing. When citizens serve on juries, the government respects them for their wisdom and experience, even in sentencing defendants for execution. When citizens run afoul of a law, they are expected to have known the law (“ignorance is no defense”).

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.

“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.

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