With Super Bowl ads behind us, it won't be long before political ads start flooding the airwaves as political primaries heat up. We all hate them but we've done little to change them. Political reform efforts have focused on improving the way traditional campaigns are financed so as to reduce the influence of billionaire donors and corporations. While this is important, technology now presents us with new opportunities to change the way voters learn about candidates entirely.
With the advent of Netflix and digital video recorders, 30-second TV ads are already on their way out. We are living in an information explosion unprecedented in human history. While Super Bowl ads are fun to watch, nobody wants to see a negative political ad, so viewers reach for the mute button faster than usual when they appear. Tech entrepreneurs will continue to respond with more ways for the consumer to screen out unwanted information be it through spam filters on e-mail, caller ID to screen phone calls, or subscription-based satellite radio and premium cable TV.
In response to the information filters, political campaigns must work even harder to deliver their message to each voter. Instead of sending one piece of mail, they send three. If TV ads are a third as effective as before, then candidates who can afford it spend three times as much on them. The need to break through the glut of information greatly magnifies the advantages of candidates who cater to wealthy interests, as they are the only ones who can afford to be heard above the din.
When one candidate outspends her opponent by margins of three- or four-to-one, we risk electing the candidate whose positions best serve the tiny slice of the electorate who can afford to contribute large amounts to campaigns rather than the candidate who best serves the public interest. In elections for the House of Representatives from 2000 to 2010, the candidate who spent the most money won 93 percent of the time. Maybe that has something to do with average congressional approval ratings of 14 percent.
One solution to the imbalance would be to set rules that limit each candidate to an equal amount of money they could spend. This makes sense to the vast majority of Americans and is done in most modern democracies, but the current five member majority of the Supreme Court believes that a level political playing field violates the First Amendment. Speech is free, in their view, only if it is for sale and unequally allocated.
Citizens are pushing hard for a constitutional amendment to reverse this Court ruling and eventually this may prevail. Efforts to enact public financing systems for all federal campaigns and create a more level playing field are also growing. But to succeed, reformers need a way to elect members of Congress who do not win office by heavily outspending their opponents.
History tells us that Congress is more willing to change the rules by which it is elected after many of its members are already elected under a new set of rules. The U.S. Senate was originally appointed by state legislatures and the Senate only agreed to the 17th Amendment for direct election by the people after many states were in effect directly electing their senators. Starting in Oregon, voters passed ballot measures that instructed their state legislature to appoint to the Senate whichever candidate had won a non-binding public straw poll. The legislators complied with the instructions and a new breed of senator emerged who did not fear direct election. Similarly, the 19th Amendment to give women the right to vote passed Congress only after 20 states had already given women the right to vote in congressional elections.
One possible state-based strategy would be for state legislatures to implement systems of public financing for congressional campaigns in their state. Minnesota tried this approach in 1990, but the courts ruled that while this approach was constitutional, Congress had pre-empted states from doing this in passing uniform federal campaign finance rules.
An alternate path lies in upgrading a century-old tradition of state-issued voter information guides. With the creation of the voter initiative process, whereby citizens petition to place legislation directly on the ballot, many western states began sending every registered voter a detailed booklet that contains the text of the ballot questions as well as arguments in favor and in opposition. Some states also allow candidates, including those running for Congress, to place statements in these guides. The voter information guide thus presents viable state-based reform to allow candidates who don't cater to big donors to run for Congress and win.
Unfortunately, voters' guides have not kept pace with technology. In California, they consist of a black and white newsprint booklet that is well over 100 pages long. This allows for the complete text of each ballot measure to be printed in multiple languages, but it creates a document that looks like it is from another century. In surveys, many young voters and Latino voters say they don't feel confident that they have adequate information to cast a vote. Yet current voters guides can appear more daunting than helpful, giving the impression that you must find time to readthrough hundreds of pages before casting your vote.
In the age of YouTube and smart phones, it would be relatively simply to upgrade voters' guides to robust digital tools that contained not only written statements from candidates, but also a series of online videos. Debate footage and campaign finance analysis could be just a click away for voters who want to dig deeper. Candidates could link to their top three endorsements and back to their own webpages. In short, we could create a new one-stop shopping hub for voters to get information from every candidate in a format that puts them all on equal footing.
Digital voters' guides would present an entirely new way to conduct political campaigns. Rather than relying on lopsided information provided through 30 second ads that interrupt programming, voters could increasingly filter out the ads and instead get the information they want at the time they are ready to make voting decisions.
Better yet, because they are official government publications, voters' guide statements can be vetted for accuracy. While courts have ruled candidates have a First Amendment right to lie in their own political ads, many states including California already have procedures to ensure that any statement in a voters' guide be substantiated and accurate.
Candidates could also be given the opportunity to rebut their opponent's charges in brief statements immediately below any video that mentions their name, or in the next video of their own in the series. When their claims do not go unchallenged, candidates will be less likely to engage in emotional smear tactics than they do now. While we can't ban mudslinging, we can make it less successful and therefore less likely.
Upgrading state voters' guides to a modern digital version will not prevent billionaires from funding massive independent expenditure campaigns as we saw in the wake of the Citizens United ruling. But, it will make it even easier for voters to ignore them. And, perhaps more importantly, it will provide a way for grassroots candidates to communicate directly to voters without outspending their opponents. Some of this new breed of candidates will win, and those that do will not hesitate to change the rules so that everyone must compete on a more level playing field.
Derek Cressman is a former national Common Cause vice president and current candidate for secretary of state in California. Follow him on Twitter at @DerekCressman.