not so free speech

Thirty-four races are held for US Senate each year, and more than four-fifths of the contests went to the campaign that spent more money. Put another way, one-third of Senate seats are up for election every two years. Of the 102 Senate races so far this decade, 86 (more than four of every five) have been won by the bigger spender. Of course, many factors determine political outcomes. However, the size of the campaign budget is one of the important factors. As most political observers would intuit, the expensive areas of the country in which to run a senate campaign are the North Eastern, North Central, and Mid Eastern states. By 2004, the more expensive campaigns in the country spent around the 16 million dollars, while the least expensive spent just over 2 million dollars. [source]

The 2004 Senate races cost just over $400 million. And what do we, the taxpayers and donors, get for that outlay? A lot of name-calling, mud-slinging and not much substance, especially on the radio and TV networks.

What seems to have been forgotten is that we, the taxpayers, own the airwaves that carry all that dreck. The broadcasters don’t own it: they license it, under the FCC regulations. What would it be like if we could actually have substantive, issues-oriented political advertising at a lower cost? The media companies who benefit from this windfall of economic activity might not like it, but I’m not so sure they have been very good shepherds of democratic speech up to now.

What if, as a condition of their license to broadcast over the freely available airwaves, each broadcaster had to give every candidate certified by the local board of elections a certain amount of airtime within different parts of the day (no dumping it into the small hours when no one is watching). Ideally, it would be weighted to that candidates would be equally represented throughout the broadcast day. Add to this, a minimum length requirement, say 30 seconds. No 10 second slams, but enough time to show that if you got nuthin’ to say, it will be obvious. There would be no maximum restriction: if a candidate wanted to run a 10 minute infomercial, that would be up to them.

The pros:

  • Candidates would no longer need to spend all their time auctioning off their votes to corporations and organizations that are at odds with the actual voters
  • Message quality would improve, as candidates would be forced to actually have a message
  • Level the playing field for candidates who otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter a race

The cons:

  • Media companies would lose revenue from ads and have to give away ad inventory/airtime
  • Someone won’t like it.

But does anyone like how we do it now? There’s a lot of talk about public financing of elections while at the same time, people grouse about how expensive elections are. Where does the money — hundreds of millions — go? To buy airtime, especially in big markets. Why not just fix this by taking the money out, removing the need to raise it, and improve access to media for all viable candidates? The power of incumbency is all about money. Could this help make the House and Senate more fluid by allowing voters to enforce the term limits in the Constitution?

Mar 16, 2010

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