February 16, 2012

Rep. Edwards's Legislation Against Local Civic Participation

Justin Katz

Rep. John Edwards (D, Tiverton, Portsmouth) has submitted legislation (H7060) that — in attempting to add ballot-question sorts of direct democracy to the list for campaign finance disclosures — would erode Rhode Island's already apathetic civic participation.

Political candidates receive votes, ultimately, based on the decisions that they will make in the future, and voters determine likelihood through a mix of history and an understanding of the foundations of the candidate's opinions. It is therefore relevant who has used campaign contributions as a means of purchasing special consideration when elected officials go on to enact and execute laws and to spend public dollars. Moreover, transparency with respect to politicians' large donors is not prone to strategies of intimidation because, one, candidates have broad mixes of policy positions with which supporters can agree or disagree and, two, seeking the attention of powerful people is so understandable as to be intrinsically built into our political system.

The dynamics of "campaign" contributions in direct democracy are entirely opposite.

A ballot question is, itself, a decision. There is no potential for future corruption based on contributions, and the policy enacted (or not) is on the ballot for all to research, consider, and decide. Money spent in support of one side or the other is not to curry favor, but to ensure that a particular set of arguments is broadly known. Yes, it would be interesting to know who helped to fund one side's most vocal advocates, but it would also be interesting to know the advocates' religious affiliation, gender, race, sexual orientation, divorce history, financial history, and any other factor that might directly or indirectly have contributed to their strong beliefs about the matter in question. The voting public can speculate about all of these things, but in the end, voters must decide the merits of the proposed policy, which is bare there before them.

In the case of individual candidacies, it is also true that the campaign seeking contributions can be expected to have an organizational structure in place to ensure that rules are followed. In the case of ballot questions — especially those of local scale — grassroots activists (better characterized as engaged citizens) may very often be political novices. Requiring them to navigate the complexities of campaign finance laws, with the specters of fines and public ridicule over technical errors, can be a strong barrier to participation.

Most importantly, as has been illustrated across the country, direct democracy is absolutely prone to strategies of intimidation. Not only is the bright focus on a single issue, but intimidating potential contributors is a direct means of ensuring that a particular set of arguments is not broadly known. It is, in other words, a means of silencing the opposition. Worse still, voters can thus be shown the likely consequence should their own votes ever become public by leak or by slip.

A local issue that was surely among the inspirations for Edwards bill provides a perfect example. The issue was whether to abandon Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting, at which residents annually determined the town's budget and taxes in public view at the high school gymnasium. While raising their hands for yea or nay, parents could not ignore the watchful eyes of their children's teachers lined up high in the bleachers, and senior citizens felt the palpable presence of the town's emergency personnel standing in the back of the room. Speakers could expect loud jeers and angry glares, often accompanied by unfair attacks from the public officials on the dais at the front of the room.

With the newly implemented Financial Town Referendum, this dynamic more or less goes away. A handful of dedicated advocates will have to step forward to make the argument for a particular budget, but the secret ballot will free residents to vote their conscience. To be sure, the opposition (particularly those whose financial interests are directly at stake) would find it beneficial to force as many people as possible to raise their hands in public, as it were, but their motives are surely contrary to democratic principles and the healthy operation of our civic sphere.