Divide and conquer campaign finance reform

July 1, 2009

I am a big fan of Lawrence Lessig’s campaign finance reform push.  However  I am highly skeptical that this time is any different and anything substantial can be accomplished that is any better than the loophole-filled reforms of the past as long as the congress has to vote on it.

But I wonder, what if Lessig directed his efforts on a state-by-state basis?  And what if he targetted how funds are used rather than how they are obtained?

It would be a lot simpler and cheaper if we focused on more progressive states (where support is high to begin with), and smaller states (which have smaller population with small and cheap media markets) first, and yet the returns for the senate would be the same (same two senators in Rhode Island as in California).

I know federal elections are constitutionally under the purview of the federal law, but as I understand it, the states have a lot of leeway in actual implementation, such as what IDs to require, and how late to keep precincts open, vote by mail, etc.

So are states also not able to establish rules for campaign advertising?  Such as limiting number of commercials, requiring TV stations to carry some free ads or X number of debates or free air time to carry a low-production-cost speech.  Of course this could only be done on local media, and not on national TV so as not to infring on interstate commerce.  The same thing could be done for newspaper ads, radio, mailers, etc.

My point is that limiting the many sources of contributions is like trying to patch a ship with a thousand leaks.  But limiting what they can do with the money is magnitudes easier because there’s only a handful of high-profile and highly visible outlets to regulate.

Then if we managed to get 16 small states on board, that’s one third of the senate that would not need to raise millions for reelection, and therefore one third of the senate that would be inherently supportive of that same reform but at the national level.  That’s a congress we can work with.

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