I. In Focus This Week
Fall is coming
Can we save democracy from campaigns?
By Seth Flaxman
The presidential campaign is now upon us, and with it comes a nearly endless line of presidential candidates and a wave of money that will crash over our democracy like we’ve never before experienced.
You will read the now-routine media story of “how much the election costs” and you’ll stagger at the hugeness of the numbers. In 2012, presidential and congressional campaigns combined to spend more than $7 billion. The midterms of 2014 posted $3.7 billion all on their own.
I’d caution you to be mindful of the true cost conveyed to you in those stories, however. The sensational numbers and high watermarks mentioned don’t represent money spent on elections — those are the totals spent by campaigns to get candidates into office. There are very real differences between the ideas.
Campaigns spend countless time and energy focused on persuading exactly the right number of voters they need to win in a single shot, one time. This operation is finite and usually has little to do with the actual process of governing.
On the other hand, election administrators across the country, working with relatively diminutive budgets, strive to make our elections work better. They hope to build civic participation year-over-year and to increase voter access while making the process more user-friendly.
Election administrators are the stewards of our democracy and yet their budgets are often an afterthought or rounding error.
They care about counting every vote — not just the ones that help a particular cause. Their vision of creating a more functional electoral process requires they keep the big picture in mind while also managing the many facets of a vote-counting operation.
At Democracy Works, we partner closely with election officials of every stripe as we help weave technology into the civic core of our nation’s elections. We see their commitment to serving every voter, regardless of political affiliation.
It really comes down to a very simple idea. As turnout increases, our democracy becomes more representative, reflecting the hopes and concerns of more people.
The election administrators we meet are wild about the notion that improving elections makes for a better democracy. The biggest movement right now is to simultaneously cut costs and improve the voting experience by moving to online voter registration. It's a necessary and smart move.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, states reported saving between $0.50 and $2.34 for every voter who registered online instead of with paper. California saved nearly $2 million in 2012 when it moved to online registration, easily covering the costs of moving to the new system.
But here's a radical idea: Let's give election administrators at least 1 percent of what will be spent on campaigns and provide them the resources to help everyone turn out more often.
That’s why I hope that anyone writing about the presidential race will help distinguish these administrators from the stories of bloated campaign spending and shed some light on the fantastic work they do in the electoral space.
Eighteen months from now, after the primaries and the debates and the speeches and the final tallies, maybe you’ll hear the news stories about the exorbitant tabs accumulated in the name of party politics and the new record sums will leave a sour taste in your mouth.
Meanwhile, you can be confident your local official is already looking ahead, preparing for the next election, not the next campaign.
(Seth Flaxman is co-founder and Executive Director of Democracy Works. Flaxman co-founded TurboVote while receiving a Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Flaxman was inspired to create TurboVote after being frustrated about missing several elections while living away from home.)
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