KOLB: Transparent Elections Are Critical, But They Don’t Come Easy

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Elections in America are public goods; they are not private auctions.

Voting for the people who govern us in our constitutional democracy is the most fundamental aspect of citizenship. If elections are corrupted, considered illegitimate or “rigged,” then democracy suffers. All citizens are harmed, and our global image (Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill”) will likewise be tarnished.

For over three years, questions about election integrity have focused on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. News reports suggest that Russian interference is continuing as we head into 2020. Hacking and data piracy have been Internet problems for years, but only recently have we learned, belatedly, how social media platforms were manipulated to drive fake news intended to influence political opinions and voters’ decisions.  

Today’s “secure elections movement” properly focuses on ways to detect and prevent foreign-government (and other) interference with our elections, in addition to safeguarding the mechanics of the election process with secure voter-registration lists, paper ballots that can be audited with confidence, and enhanced cyber security. The “Secure Elections Act,” introduced earlier by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Jeff Lankford, focuses primarily on the Department of Homeland Security’s federal role, but ensuring secure elections must also engage state and local authorities in a joint effort.

Then there are additional process reforms included in H.R. 1, like reforming gerrymandered election districts, improving access to the polls, and providing funds to match small-dollar contributions. H.R. 1 was recently passed by the House of Representatives but is going nowhere in the Senate.

Transparency and confidence are critical to ensuring that election outcomes are considered legitimate. Along with mechanical and process concerns, it is also essential to consider how money enters our elections. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (“BCRA”), co-sponsored by the late Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Russ Feingold, and former Congressmen Chris Shays and Marty Meehan, ended unregulated “soft money” contributions from corporations, labor unions, and individuals.

Since 2002, however, thanks to several U.S. Supreme Court rulings, other loopholes have opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited political-campaign spending. Soft money remains illegal, but millions of undisclosed dollars (so-called “dark money”) now can affect political campaigns and influence the voting process.

Unfortunately, the “pay-to-play” features of our political system remain alive and well. Even legal political action committee (“PAC”) spending creates this impression. PAC money entails bundled individual contributions that are then directed by the PAC to a particular campaign. PAC contributions buy candidate “face time” and access; there’s no other reason for making them. Then there are the so-called “independent” Super PAC contributions and expenditures that have blown up attempts to regulate campaign money.

Fortunately, the money entering our election system cannot, legally, line the pockets of existing or aspiring politicians. The $6.5 billion spent in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections went to a vast (and growing) campaign finance cottage industry that includes campaign advisers; pollsters; the media; the people who buy, place, and write political ads; campaign lawyers; social-media experts; get-out-the vote experts; and many others.

These people make good money; they like the status quo. More money is manna for them, because they will find ways to spend all the money candidates raise. There’s always a justification for more polling, more data segmenting, and more analyses of the virtually unlimited, targeted personal voter data that political campaigns can now access.

While wealthy individuals are a growing presence in political spending, American companies also have remained a presence, directly and indirectly. Corporate soft money is gone, but corporate PACs, as noted, contribute, and corporate trade-association dues are sometimes used to fund political activities in amounts that remain undisclosed.

Given today’s highly-charged partisan political environment, companies that make such contributions risk significant branding and reputational harm, especially if it becomes known that their private political spending contradicts their publicly stated core values. If companies engage in political spending, they should make such spending fully transparent. It should also be disclosed to and approved by their boards in advance.

We must protect our elections against foreign attacks. At the same time, there are enormous domestic challenges to ensure that all the money spent on our elections and political activity is fully disclosed. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we want credible elections, then we must act now to ensure that they are open, secure, and transparent. The threats we face come not only from abroad. We’ve got big problems here at home, too.

Charles Kolb clerked for a federal district court judge and served as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan, business-led think tank, from 1997-2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.