As we near the end of this rancorous election there exists a rich irony in the presidential contest. Voters repeatedly say their highest priority is the economy and job creation, yet the two presidential candidates and their surrogates have spent more than two billion dollars, a sum which would employ 40,000 people at a $50,000 annual salary. Our nation and those people would have been better served by their hiring. We deserve better than this.
A super PAC reports they are spending more than 1.4 million dollars to elect a Supreme Court Justice in our state. We may have started with the guarantee of free speech but we are far down that slippery slope that ends in the outright purchasing of elections. In today’s environment the candidate or group raising the most money buys the most media and virtually always wins. Sadly, we seldom know who is funding these groups, what their agenda might be and what they expect from the candidates they elect. It’s an unconscionable money chase filled with distasteful attack ads.
The last presidential election when issues were central to the campaign was the McGovern-Nixon contest of 1972. Since that time we’ve seen campaign managers carefully prepping and packaging candidates much like a new laundry detergent. The most important campaign staffer does opposition research, finding those tiny morsels that can paint the opponent as an ogre with whom you wouldn’t share a happy meal. Now we learn that some zealots, unable to convince people to vote as a patriotic responsibility, are attempting to shame those who don’t by publishing their names and voting records.
Elections have seldom been a pristine and gentile exchange of ideas and philosophies. More often than not there has been chicanery, bribery and intimidation below the surface, but this cycle has plummeted to new lows. We need election reform.
For starters, independent redistricting is necessary so officials are not selecting their voters instead of the other way around. We value the guarantee of free speech but there must be some way to take the huge money out of elections. Public funding isn’t the answer, either. We prefer fixed limits on cash and in-kind contributions to candidates and if we are to continue to allow super PAC’s, those limits should also apply to them and we should know who contributes and how much they give. Each candidate or support group is entitled to their opinions but not their own facts; they should be required to factually verify claims they make to the State Board of Elections and be publicly reprimanded when they make false claims. The election season is far too long. If we are to be inundated by these terrible ads we should move primaries to August with general elections in November, eliminating costly and unnecessary runoffs. Judges should be appointed, as should some down ballot contests and we don’t object to having voter ID so long as it is not a tool to discriminate or prevent people from voting.
But we have to acknowledge that these expensive, mean-spirited campaigns work. We can complain all we want but election campaigns won’t improve until those who run them learn they can’t win using these tactics. Instead of complaining, let’s stop rewarding these campaigns. We can do better.
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be reached at www.ncspin.com.