Expert says public finance important for democracy

Special interest: it’s one of the most common issues in politics that guarantees to command attention from voters every election season.

Special interest: it’s one of the most common issues in politics that guarantees to command attention from voters every election season. Last Thursday, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig visited Portland State to tell voters that there is a way to limit special interest groups in the city.

Lessig, a long-time proponent for increased freedom in digital media and a researcher on the effect of campaign financing. was on hand to provide some expert opinion on city measure 26-108. A “yes” vote would continue the city’s five-year-old program of public financing for political candidates running for office.

The event was sponsored by Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honors society, and was co-sponsored by OSPIRG and Common Cause Oregon.

Lessig asked the crowd how often they look at political issues and can say that something is voted and based on merit and in tandem with the public’s interest, rather than being influenced by powerful corporations.

By giving three examples he illustrated the influence of big corporations in government policy and the consequences. Lessig said we can no longer even dream about voting on the merit anymore. 

Referring to politicians as “shape-shifters,” Lessig said they have developed a dependency on their powerful funders and are engaged in a “political dance” in which policies are bought and sold.

“Here’s the obvious point: The funders are not the people,” Lessig said. “This is a corruption of the architecture our founders intended, a corruption of this institution.”

Lessig cited a study from Princeton University’s Martin Gilens, which concludes that when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, the actual policy outcome strongly reflects the preferences of the most affluent.  

However, Lessig said that whether or not voters believe money buys policy, they may be certain that this perception alone will negatively affect the democratic process.

“The number one reason why young people your age will not vote is because they believe that whatever they do, corporations still have too much power,” Lessig said. “This perception affects the vast majority of the people in the middle, leaving only the people on the extreme left or the extreme right.”

According to Lessig, the solution to this problem is to cut the proverbial strings of corporate money.

An idea that was started by the progressive-era president Theodore Roosevelt is now being embraced by many states, including Oregon, called a citizen-funded election. Lessig said this would change the relationship between Congress and their funders, and therefore shift the power away from corporations and into the hands of the people.

In Oregon, Voter Owned Election was first put in place in 2005 and is now on the ballot for renewal. Proponents of Measure 26-115 said the program had successfully turned out candidates like Erik Stein and Amanda Fritz, who won seats in City Council while utilizing public funds. On the other hand, opponents of the measure said it’s a wasteful use of public money that shows dubious results and leaves room for wasteful spending and fraud.

Lessig believes we should support laws like Measure 26-118 at the local level, and the Fair Election Now Act at the federal level. This piece of legislation would require candidates to raise small donations of $100 or less per person from their home state.  

Similarly, Measure 26-118 requires candidates for mayor, commissioner and auditor to collect a thousand $5 donations if they want to qualify for the public fund of $150,000 to $450,000.

“The program would produce politicians who would focus not on what their richest funders want, but on what the people want,” Lessig said. “It would produce a different Congress, salient to different issues, and it would make it possible for you to trust that whatever Congress did was not for the money.”

One other impact of voter-owned election programs is that it would take away some of the power from lobbyists. This would make these groups champion for policy instead of channeling money into campaigns, Lessig said.

Lessig believes that citizens, not politicians, are the only ones who can carry out this change.

“Benjamin Franklin said, ‘We’ve given you a republic if you can keep it,'” Lessig said. “We all have to recognize that we have lost that republic—this is not the system of government. And I hope you join us…to lead us in this struggle to get it back.”  ?