To improve civic participation we need transparency

Journalism / Article

Chris Gates is the president of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all. Below he writes on voter participation and campaign finance disclosure, inspired by the latest News Challenge from Knight Foundation. Knight News Challenge: Elections asks the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? Winners will share in more than $3 million. Apply at newschallenge.org.

Over the past several decades, we’ve seen a steady decline in voter turnout, and a growing feeling of disconnect from the leaders of our government that exists to represent us. This, despite advances in technology that quite literally have put the world at our fingertips. Why is it then, when technology has made it easier than ever to access information, connect with one another, build networks and communicate ideas, that we’re so disengaged from the political process? RELATED LINKS

Knight News Challenge: Elections Mixtape” by Knight Foundation

Towards empathetic disruption: Civic tech and doing what works” by John Bracken and Lucas Hernandez on Knight blog, 03/04/15

Democracy Works launches new voter tool, expands programs” by Seth Flaxman on Knight blog, 03/04/15

Balancing technology risks and benefits in elections” by Jeremy Epstein on Knight blog, 03/02/15

To improve civic participation we need transparency” by Chris Gates on Knight blog, 02/26/15

“Civic engagement essential to strengthening democracy” by Kelly Born on Knight blog, 02/25/15

Knight News Challenge on Elections opens for ideas” by Chris Barr and Shazna Nessa on Knight blog, 02/25/15

Knight News Challenge to focus on Elections” on Knight blog, 02/12/15

Rather than engage, more and more people are making an active, and rational, choice to not participate in our political process. The United States has the lowest turnout rate of any industrialized country in the world. Citizens are tuning out and turning away from a system they feel can’t hear them and doesn’t represent them. Are they wrong? Given the state of our political system, who do citizens think their leaders really represent?

Record amounts of money are flooding our elections, and the origins of much of it remain a mystery until long after the votes are cast. Our political system has created a never-ending cycle of fundraisers and campaigning, which funds attacks and counter-attacks. Long before an election, candidates and elected officials are hustling to raise money to win—or keep—their seats. And long before voters take to the polls, those candidates and the special interests behind them are spending billions to influence their decisions.

A real, albeit anonymous, congressman said it best in a recent Vox article. “It is more lucrative to pander to big donors than to regular citizens. Campaigns are so expensive that the average member needs a million-dollar war chest every two years and spends 50 percent to 75 percent of their term in office raising money. Think about that. You’re paying us to do a job, and we’re spending that time you’re paying us asking rich people and corporations to give us money so we can run ads convincing you to keep paying us to do this job. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, the mega-rich have been handed free loudspeakers.”

More and more voters are asking themselves, why should I participate when my voice is being drowned out by wealthy donors and special interests with deeper pockets? Compared to the influence of millions of dollars, what is the value of a single vote?

People decry the fact they feel left out of the process—and that’s understandable when you consider it can cost upwards of $100,000 to have dinner (and face time) with presidential candidates, and when hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by shadowy groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand the decline in formal civic participation. People simply don’t believe or see the government working for them.

We believe that more transparency regarding the funding of our candidates and their campaigns can play a major role in restoring voter’s faith in their government, and bringing them back to the table of civic participation.

A key step in raising our levels of voter turnout is ensuring that the public knows who is behind these campaign contributions and the political advertisements they buy. And it’s not enough to get this information months after an election; voters must have access to that information in real time. Right now, House and presidential candidates are required to file campaign finance reports electronically, making them available to the public right away. But the Senate has stunningly balked at requiring the same level of disclosure for itself. Currently, Senate candidates file their reports on paper, often not even in machine-readable form, leaving the public in the dark for up to several months after an election. By implementing a simple, bipartisan policy such as real-time electronic filing, we’ll not only save taxpayers $500,000 a year, but we’ll give voters timely access to information about who is contributing to Senate campaigns.

Without knowing who’s behind the money, how can we hold our officials accountable for their decisions, both during the campaign and once in office? Better disclosure of campaign contributions will also help give context for congressional actions. A recent Sunlight Foundation study found that between 2007–2012 the 200 most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions and received $4.4 trillion in federal business and support over the same time period. Is there any wonder that voters have doubts as to what interests our officials really represent?

In order to re-engage with the public, it’s time for our leaders to pull back the curtains on the electoral and political processes, and prioritize transparency. Transparency alone is not enough, but it’s the first step in a larger reform agenda.

Knight Foundation is partnering with the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation on Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? The best ideas will share in more than $3 million. Apply at newschallenge.org by 5 p.m. ET March 19. Winners will be announced in June.