Honest money

Would vote-buying improve elections?

Am I the only one? Watching the Republican gubernatorial primary reminds me of a homecoming king contest that pits the quarterback whose dad bought him a convertible against the student council vice-president, the swim team equipment manager and the Key Club treasurer. One of them will win, but none of them deserves to, and I’m thinking about just skipping the dance.

Which brings me, in the way these things do, to the U.S. Supreme Court. As I write, the justices are pondering -- if that word describes what this court does – how it will rule in the campaign finance case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The Roberts court, like more liberal courts did before it, is likely to ignore precedent and common sense in order to deliver whichever verdict best satisfies its social inclinations. Which in this case means removing the last legal impediment to unlimited campaign contributions by individuals to candidates, parties and campaigns.

I am not especially troubled by the money that the rich spend on campaigns. It’s their country, for one thing. For another, money can’t buy you love, as Corrine Wood, Jim Oberweis, Ron Gidwitz and Andy McKenna learned to their considerable cost. (I can’t lie -- I couldn’t member them either. I had to look them up.) For yet another, the law already allows the pathologically vain alpha male with money to throw away as much of it as he wants in futile campaigns for public office.

I look forward to the court’s ruling with dismay nonetheless. An end to donation limits is likely to result in a  quantum jump in campaign contributions, which means more campaign spending, which means longer and noisier campaigns. And that means more dishonestly worded opinion polls that the media keep mistaking for news, and more mendacious TV commercials to fast-forward through.

The biggest problem with campaign financing from any source is that it finances  campaigns. That’s why I was delighted to hear a proposal that would do away with these dog shows altogether. You remember Tom Perkins, the venture capitalist who in the Wall Street Journal compared protesters’ picketing the wealthy to the 1930s Nazis’ treatment of the Jews? Perkins subsequently shared his opinion that voting for public officials ought to be conducted along the same lines as voting in corporate shareholder elections – one share, one vote. Instead of shares, the determining factor would be dollars of taxes paid. “You pay a million dollars in taxes, you should get a million votes,” he said.

Once upon a time I would have fretted that such a system would saddle the rest of us with a government that represents the interests of the rich. But we already have such a government, and elections are held merely to decide which of the rich will try to turn the U.S. into the great country they think it was.

I much prefer Matthew Yglesias’s version of the Perkins plan. Yglesias notes that the rich have already found many ways to influence elections without buying votes directly. “Right now we force rich people who want to wield disproportionate influence to sort of launder their money through a complicated array of political consultants, fundraising professionals and media firms,” he writes at Slate.

Exactly. Why not let our Tom Perkinses offer their votes to whoever wants to buy them, at whatever price they think them worth? The political consultants, fundraising professionals and media firms would be back hustling tourists on the streets where they belong. Concludes Yglesias, “Letting people buy and sell votes would thus redistribute some income without necessarily changing policy dynamics very much.”

Quite a lot of income, potentially. In Parliamentary elections in Britain, voters cast ballots in alphabetical order; in the 1830s, a voter with an “A” name might get two pounds for his vote, but if the race was close, late votes became decisive, and a voter with an “S” name might get 10 pounds or more – an astonishing amount of money. (That’s why my family is not rich; my English ancestors had names like Anderson, Beaver and Dorsey.)

Yes, there are practical problems to work out. Vote-buying in Illinois was as normal as wife-beating in the good old days yearned for by our Tom Perkinses. Voters had to call out in front of witnesses the name of the candidate they preferred to confirm that they’d delivered the goods. The adoption of the secret ballot put an end to all that. How would we guarantee that Voter A, having accepted a bung from Candidate B, actually voted for Candidate B?

I say adopt the Perkins system anyway. Better that candidates get a vote with honest money than get one with dishonest campaigns or government services “paid for” using dishonest budgets. I don’t need a candidate to sell out on my behalf when I choose between Millionaire A and Millionaire B – I can do that for myself and do it cheaper. You listening, Bruce Rauner? Make me an offer I can’t refuse.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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