Thursday, 30 October 2008

The best democracy money can buy...

Why the complaints about the cost of the US election?

Last night I went to a debate at the British Library, hosted by the Eccles Centre and the wonderful Benjamin Franklin's House museum (go and see them at 36 Craven Road near the National Liberal Club). The debate was chaired by Sir Bob Worcester, one of PB.com's favourite contributors, and the speakers were the respective chairmen of Democrats and Republicans abroad.

I have heard so many debates on this Presidential election, that I know the vast majority of the questions that will inevitably be asked. One cropped up last night that gave vent to a shared position by the questioner and both speakers, which I found vaguely absurd.

Much has been made of Obama's ability to fundraise - he is the best fundraiser in the history of these contests, both with respect to total dollar amount, and number of cotributors, even adjusting for population size and wealth. Whilst lauding this ability, it seems many Democrats are still uncomfortable with such a talent.

The Chair of Republicans Abroad was quick to lambast Obama for breaking his promise to take public funds (and their corresponding spending limits) - for what it's worth, I would have broken that promise too, but can still recognise that it falls quite some way short of being a virtuous act. John McCain took public money, though less from a sense of honour, and more because he was broke and needed it as collateral for private loans. He also tried to escape its limits by giving the money back, but was forced to concede that it was firmly accepted under the law. That has been one of the key features of this entire campaign.

Another point that the Republican speaker raised was that Obama had raised unprecedented amounts in volumes less than $200 - this means that a higher proportion of his fundraising was not subject to full checks on the origins of the money, and could indicate irregularity. Both campaigns have been forced to return about $1 million to the FEC for such reasons, but I don't consider this a huge concern - there is less threat to democracy from widening the net and allowing hundreds of thousands to donate with a few illegal donors, than to make candidates reliant on donors who only ever give massive sums of money.

What both speakers, and the person who asked the question, agreed upon was that there was too much money in American politics. I categorically disagree.

There is perhaps too much money in the races for the US House of Representatives. A Congressman in a swingable district (of which there are stunnningly few left, thanks to outrageous Gerrymandering by both parties to create impregnable majorities in each state) needs to raise about $10,000 a week for his biennial re-election. One million dollars per candidate per House seat over a two year cycle seems a lot.

Senate races vary in cost - some are impossible for one party to win, either because of the leanings of the state (Republicans in Oklahoma, Democrats in Massachusetts) or because the Senator is so long standing (Senate Pro Tem Robert Byrd of West Virginia). A competitive race in a big state, with an expensive media market might cost $5-10 million every six years though.

This Presidential contest will be famous for being the first to cost more than $1 billion dollars, maybe almost $1.1 billion. That sounds obscene, but is it?

American teenagers spend about $1.2 billion per annum on chewing gum. Why should the contest to determine how 120 million Americans choose the most powerful man in the world cost less than the combined revenues of Orbit, Wrigleys and Trident?

If this Presidential election (including Primaries) costs $1.1 billion, and there have been two cycles of Congressional elections (2006 midterms, and 2008 elections) for the House and Senate, then how much have Federal Elections raised and spent in the last four years?

Presidential election (inc primaries) both candidates: $1.10 billion
435 House seats x 2 elections x 2 candidates x $1m per candidate: $1.74 billion
67 Senate races plus 2 special elections x $5m per candidate: $0.69 billion
Administrative costs (inc Conventions and election machines): $0.5 billion

TOTAL = 1.10 + 1.74 + 0.69 + 0.5 = approx $4 billion dollars over 4 years

This assumes that all House races are tight, and that an incumbant Congressman spends as much as his opponent, at about $1m per campaign for each side. It also assumes that a dead-cert Senate race in Vermont costs as much as a race for US Senate in California. It attributes costs for electoral process paid for by the States, which would be used for State elections anyway - and I reckon my guess is high. I reckon that the true cost may be only about 60% of what I have stated as the total.

So, at $4bn for a 4 year cycle, that's a billion dollars a year, for a country of just over 300 million citizens. That's $3.30 per citizen per year, or $10 per voter who actually votes per year. I think that is a very reasonable cost for having free, fair, transparent elections to some of the most powerful political posts in the world - electing almost 1000 office holders over the four years.

So, America spends more on its Federal Elections than almost any other nation - thing is, I'm not sure that's an unfortunate boast at all. It engages hundreds of thousands of people as activists, it runs caucuses and primaries, it pays for TV advertising that puts policy positions in the public domain, it creates conventions and debates that are the talking point of the whole country for days. We can't expect British General Elections to excite that many people when we are not prepared to pay for the campaigning and the debating, the activists and the adverts - we run our democracy on the cheap, and thus get exactly what we pay for. I wonder whether the criticism of America is completely misplaced - I reckon they actually have the best democracy that money can buy.

1 comment:

Timothy (likes zebras) said...

I think most of the criticism of the amount of money spent on the US election is due to what the money is spent on, rather than the cost per voter.

As we can see from the long queues for voting - even though it is being spread over more than a week in some places - the money is certainly not being spent on making it easy to vote.

By and large the money is being spent on adverts, and to a large extent these adverts are negative. In Britain, after ludicrous billboard ads such as the "Demon Eyes" or William Hague in a Thatcher wig, we can hardly be smugly superior about this.

However, I think we can at least claim to have a more efficient and less contentious voting process - even though this has worsened in recent years with postal voting fraud.