There has been increasing interest in recent years on the part of voters for less partisan, more civil deliberation and aboveboard lawmaking. One survey earlier this year concluded that, without regard for political affiliation, two-thirds of U.S. voters had negative feelings about our political processes.
Despite this attitude, in Minnesota — the state that works — a nation-leading eight in 10 eligible voters turned up at the polls in 2016. (In 11 of the last 12 elections, Minnesota has led the nation in voter turnout.) One in four of our voters use absentee ballots, most often submitting them online.
According to a national survey by Pew, Minnesota voters are politically divided with 46% DFL, 40% Republican and 14% unaffiliated. When it comes to courteous, well-manned and productive governance, there really isn’t a single best approach owned by any political party or group; a lot of it is common sense.
Special-interest and money concerns
To many, our political process is too strongly influenced by money spent in campaigns and for lobbying of our elected officials.
This view is not new. One hundred and twelve years ago, during his 1907 State of the Union Address, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” Public financing of elections, TR believed, would ensure that no particular donor has an outsized influence on the outcome of any election, and would “work a substantial improvement in our system of conducting a campaign.”
Over the years, I have regularly weighed in on political reform issues. I testified before the Minnesota House in support of ballot rotation in the 1970s when the winning party candidates (almost always the DFL) would be listed first on the ballot. I told U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) that I would not testify before Congress about repealing Minnesota’s first-in-the-nation Election Day registration, thus, I said, aligning our Independent-Republicans of Minnesota in opposition to making it easier for every qualified citizen to vote. Today, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted a similar form of same-day voter registration.
I volunteered to help reformer John Gardner set up Common Cause and became a charter member with my focus on opening up our political process. I was actively involved with Minnesota’s League of Women Voters on several election-law issues. I worked for over a year in overseeing Minnesotans for a Single House Legislature. In the 1990s, I was selected to the board of an election reform commission headed by Joan Anderson Growe, Minnesota’s secretary of state. Our ideas are still accessible online [PDF].
Politics is into all of us
At a recent forum sponsored by “Clean Elections Minnesota” in which current Secretary of State Steve Simon was the featured speaker, he allowed that many “may not be into politics, but politics is into them.”
Those attending the meeting agreed that amassing the most money should not be the primary goal of candidates and campaigns. In the last presidential election three years ago, a record $6.4 billion was spent on the campaign while lobbyists in Washington, D.C., spent an additional $3.1 billion making their case during the same time period. At nearly $10 billion, this is big business.
According to Simon and others, efforts to expand citizen engagement in campaigns include the expansion of our state’s limited public financing for legislative candidates to help level the playing field, strengthening the timely public disclosure of campaign contributions, expansion of the $50 per taxpayer state tax credit for money given to either candidates or parties, and generally maximizing voter opportunity and registration.
Changing the way that State House/Senate conference committees operate to find common ground — or even eliminating them altogether — is another aspect of concern to many familiar with the process.
The idea of altering the current Electoral College system was discussed, some advocating abolishing it completely and adopting a direct election for U.S. presidents.
High on the Minnesota agenda
Two additional suggestions deserve legislative consideration slated to begin on Feb. 11, 2020.
- Strengthening the role of the Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board to assure widespread awareness of contributions, lobbyist interests and affiliations.
- Supporting the efforts to create a nonpartisan political redistricting process required every 10 years. Ideas range from creating an open-meetings-only nine-member board of citizens to a system that includes a judicial panel as a final arbiter when lawmakers cannot agree on population balanced boundaries for congressional and legislative districts. Minnesota has too often redrawn the lines as a result of costly lawsuits settled in our courts.
Minnesota has a deep civic ethic when compared to most states. We have the ability to manage the many aspects of honorable self-governance for many years, but we must be vigilant.
For the record, in the many campaigns for local, state and national offices in which I have been closely involved, I have not personally experienced organized cheating in any form.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. A former GOP state party chair, he began local electioneering — “I Like Ike — when he was 9 years old.
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