WDC Proposes Reform Agenda

5-step 'Power to the Voter' program aims to restore democracy

November 18, 2004

Madison - Responding to political corruption, an epidemic of uncontested races for state offices and growing polarization and partisan animosity at the State Capitol with a new call for reform, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign today offered a five-part prescription for what ails democracy in the state.

The Democracy Campaign’s "Power to the Voter" agenda includes:

  • Truth in campaigning - legislation or administrative rules requiring full and prompt disclosure of all election-related activities.
  • Voter-owned elections - comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation creating a level playing field for candidates, limiting special interest influence and putting voters back in control of state election campaigns.
  • Unleashed watchdogs - independent ethics and campaign finance law enforcement by reforming the state Elections Board and Ethics Board.
  • Tamper-proof voting districts - more competitive elections and less partisan rancor among lawmakers by ending partisan gerrymandering through the creation of an independent authority in charge of drawing legislative district lines.
  • Free choice voting - election reforms such as instant runoff voting to give voters more choices, discourage negative campaigning and eliminate "wasted votes" or "spoiler" candidates.

"There is a crisis of confidence in the ethics and integrity of state government that needs to be addressed," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "So many people feel powerless. They feel politics is something that is done to them, not something they can influence. They realize their own elected representatives are tuning them out and listening to the corporations and other wealthy campaign donors."

McCabe said five things need to happen for the public’s trust in state government to be restored and for faith in the democratic process to be rehabilitated. The first is transparency in state politics.

"The public is being kept in the dark about who is really paying for these election campaigns. Millions of dollars are being passed under the table. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Letting people really see who is giving to whom is essential," McCabe said.

Voters also need to reclaim ownership of election campaigns if they expect their elected officials to be responsive to them and not beholden to special interest campaign donors, he said.

"Political campaigns cost money, and taxpayers pay for those campaigns one way or the other. They can either pay for the cost of election campaigns directly through a system of public financing, or they will indirectly pay much more for the cost of perks and political favors handed to big campaign donors," he said.

Even the best campaign finance reforms will accomplish nothing if they are not faithfully implemented and rigorously enforced, however.

"Wisconsin has the fox guarding the hen house. Ethical standards in Wisconsin politics have slipped and corruption is taking root at the Capitol because the agencies responsible for enforcing the state ethics code and campaign finance laws aren’t doing their job," he said.

McCabe said citizens he encounters in his travels around the state commonly say they are embarrassed by what they describe as a dysfunctional Legislature, and they list the loss of civility among lawmakers and increasing partisan rancor and gridlock among reasons for their embarrassment. But people can’t quite put a finger on the reason for the change in behavior, he said, adding that an overlooked factor is partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts.

"Lopsided voting districts polarize legislative politics. When district lines are oddly drawn to advantage the party in power, it demoralizes voters and makes it harder to get fresh blood and new ideas into the Legislature. But lopsided districts also lead candidates to appeal to just one side. The result is a Legislature of fierce partisans, with fewer members who seek the middle ground that can serve as a basis of compromise to get the public’s business done," he said.

Finally, many voters feel trapped when it comes to marking their ballot and that is easily remedied, McCabe said.

"Too many voters feel forced to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of evils at election time," he said. "There is a well-tested system of voting that enhances a voter’s freedom to choose and eliminates’wasted votes’ and ’spoiler' candidates, yet Wisconsin is not considering it."

An added benefit of free choice voting reforms such as instant runoff voting is that it creates a powerful disincentive to engage in negative campaigning.

"People hate negative ads and allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference strongly discourages negative campaigning. To win, candidates need to get some second or third place votes as well as first place votes. They’ll be less likely to attack their opponents if they need support from their opponents’ voters," McCabe said.

Preferential voting also would save taxpayers money by eliminating the need for primary elections, he added.

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