Campaign Finance Reform: Looking Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Recently the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission proposed a set of new campaign finance laws. There were several good proposals and one strange piece of logic that somehow making it easier for county parties to raise more money will help curb money in politics. This, of course, will make it even harder for non-organization candidates to compete in primaries, but ELEC doesn’t seem concerned with that. 

Nobody likes the system. Not challengers, not incumbents, not the party chairs who have to raise the money – which is why they prefer a system where they can raise more money from less people. Can’t blame them for that.  

And the solutions never seem to work. Remember when PAC’s were a reform solution? The old campaign adage “money is like water; it will seep into every crack” is true. While we should always be searching for solutions to this problem, the forces of money will constantly be thinking of new ways to influence the system.  The Supreme Court ruling that money equals speech has made it much harder to keep the money out.   

What can be done?  Well, let’s start at the beginning.  Why are campaigns expensive?  Because the mediums of communication cost lots of money. TV, direct mail, radio, newspaper ads, etc. all cost money. Lots of it. 

So, lets turn the telescope around. How about reducing the costs of campaigns for candidates, instead?  Then, they won’t have to raise as much money – and money givers become less important. Here’s a few simple things we can do. 

Reduce the cost of television advertising. 

Cable networks sign contracts with each town, giving it a monopoly. The state should require language mandating that systems provide X amount of free advertising spread across all day parts. They should provide enough to effectively communicate two spots.  We are giving them to right to get rich (heck, Comcast is one of the five big media conglomerates. You’re welcome, Comcast). Let them give a little back. 

Reduce the cost of printing mailers, brochures, etc. 

The state can solicit bids and designate 3-5 printers to handle all of the campaigns printing, requiring large volume discounts.  Anyone who has dealt with printing knows that costs reduce dramatically with volume. They could provide a set number of standard formats. This should be able to reduce printing costs by 30-40%.  

I would love to see the post office do what they do in Ireland – deliver political mail for free, but that is a federal issue. Nothing we can do about that here. 

Reduce the cost of newspaper advertising. 

The state is providing a $5,000,000 pool of money to support local news coverage. How about requiring that any newspaper accessing that money be required to provide six half page ads for each candidate, spread throughout April-June for primaries and Sept.-Nov. for general elections.  

There obviously would need to be minimum qualifications for candidates to access this program. And we could start by applying these reforms to, say, legislative races first and then expand. 

These actions would be a start, giving candidates a chance to be heard and have their ideas considered. None of them would cost taxpayers a cent. 

I’m now trying to figure out how the state can reduce radio and social media advertising costs. I’m open to suggestions. 

Barry Brendel is a political consultant who has consulted to over 200 campaigns in 20 states including six presidential. Barry has been involved in many of the most prominent issues of our time, including utility deregulation (beating Enron), school vouchers, tariff issues (beating the French government), siting issues, consumer issues, tort reform and many others. Barry served as Senior Advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign and is Chair of Our Revolution New Jersey. This year, he, also, chaired an effort that elected hundreds of new county committee members to previously vacant seats.

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