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Vouching for democracy

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In his nomination of executive cabinet positions, President-elect Trump, who rallied support from a disaffected working class and railed against the privilege of Washington insiders and financial elites, is trying to appoint what would be among the most elite group of Wall Street financiers and corporate billionaires ever to be placed in government positions in the history of our country.

The Office of Government Ethics has just released a statement regarding the Trump team’s lack of preparation in getting these nominees thoroughly vetted through the standard background checks, financial disclosures, and committee questionnaires that are a normal part of the nomination process. They warn that even as congressional hearings for these nominees get underway this week, we face “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues.” This is an ominous first step.

Our soon-to-be new reality of an even more insulated, unaccountable elite taking hold of the presidency, and the fact that anybody, even Mr. Trump, thinks that we will just acquiesce to such an assertion of private interest into the public sphere, is just the latest proof that the legitimacy of our political system is being undermined by the influence of private interests, leaving ordinary citizens disaffected and disengaged. Public opinion surveys consistently show that the vast majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, believe that “special interests” have too much influence and that elected officials are controlled by the groups and people who finance their election campaigns.

We must begin to reassert popular control over the selection of candidates for public office, and that begins with campaign finance reform. The freedom to contribute to the campaign of a candidate is an important act of free speech. It signals how much and how intensely you support a candidate, in a way that a vote does not. Tragically, without reasonable limits on campaign contributions, our current system mutes the voices of average people, as a tiny fraction of the wealthiest Americans, about 100 families, finance most of the millions in Super PAC (political action committee) donations that fuel our extraordinarily expensive campaigns.

Reform starts at home. The city of San Luis Obispo, with its long history as an initiator of common sense, progressive reforms, has an opportunity this year to lead the country again in a reaffirmation of basic democratic values. The city should adopt a democracy voucher program and new ethical standards, which can serve as a model for the country, eventually replacing our corrupted national campaign finance system.

Democracy vouchers have been around as a concept for a while, but SLO could be the first to adopt a registered voter card system that would work like an ATM or gift card, worth $20, that could be used to contribute to City Council and mayoral candidates, using the same secure technology. Compared to the 60 or so individuals who regularly dominate our local finance (and thus candidate selection) system, local candidates would need to reach out to nearly a thousand voters to collect the funding currently spent in local elections, amplifying the voice of citizens over special interests.

The democracy voucher system would be coupled with strict new local disclosure requirements. Independent expenditures (which cannot currently be restricted) on any campaign activity worth $500 or more would have to be reported to the city clerk electronically with the identity of the original donor (to avoid “disclosure” through ambiguous PAC organizations or political parties), facilitating the most open, transparent process that current law allows.

An ethics commission, much like the city’s current campaign regulations committee, normally convened after election cycles, would be responsible for monitoring campaign finance contributions and spending from July through Election Day. Spending limits prior to Labor Day would shorten the campaign season and reduce overall spending. The Electoral Integrity Ordinance could be fully funded and administered for less than the amount the city recently spent to renovate public toilets. Cleaning up our democracy is at least as important.

Instead of being discouraged or cynical, you can be a force for change. 

Our newly elected city leaders support campaign finance reform. Show them that you are ready for them to lead, by emailing emailcouncil@slocity.org and simply writing “I support democracy vouchers” in the subject line. Get yourself and your neighbors to the last SLO City Council meeting in January. Acting locally, we can be a force for national change, for it has been a century since that great reformer on the national stage, once a local politician, Theodore Roosevelt, rightly declared that “a great democracy has got to be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy.” 

Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com

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