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Sex & Low Beach
Professor Richard Briffault is a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in campaign finance and election laws. He earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia and his J.D. from Harvard. He has written numerous articles on campaign finance laws, including a recent article in The Atlantic in which Briffault suggests that the federal government match small donations that are below a certain threshold, a proposal that would increase the power of small donors in American elections. The Eye sat down with Briffault to discuss his plan, how it would affect students, and additional problems with the 2012 presidential campaign.
In your article in The Atlantic, you proposed that in order to make campaigns less beholden to large donations, the government should create a system, which puts more emphasis on small donations. What are the benefits and risks of a small donor democracy?
The idea of small donor democracy is to make candidates less beholden to specific interest groups, to financially based interest groups. But it doesn’t and still needs to do something to activate a financial base and get people to give them money. And in some sense make it more decentralized in just the way that voting is decentralized. It’s true in order to get people to vote, people who belong to organized interest groups may be easier to mobilize, whether they’re economic or ethnic or ideological. The idea of small donor democracy is to make campaign finance process more like the election process itself. Numbers should matter—numbers of supportes, not wealth of supporters.
If this process of matching small donor donations is implemented, will it be possible for the government to finance this and reduce the federal deficit?
Let’s say, the government gives 25 dollars to 100 million people to pay for elections. That’s not very much money. I think people are guesstimating that the total cost of the federal elections this year will be about $8 billion. Is that one day in the war in Iraq? It’s money, but compared to what? Do we think it’s worth it? Many people would say that in the long run, we would save money, because of the kind of spending, wasteful spending, unnecessary trade barriers, and tax breaks. The government pays for federal election costs; the assumption is that we have office holders not dependent on large donors anymore. Some poll power spending will be cut, some tax loopholes will be closed, some tariff barriers will be lowered, and that will end up saving a lot more from avoiding unnecessary government expenses that are being driven by campaign contributors and this would cost us less taxpayer dollars.
There are many conservative groups that are focusing on voter registration in swing states, attempting to implement stricter laws. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s happening right now. Apparently some voter registration groups, a Republican voter registration group in Florida, has been accused of fraud. The idea here is that, it has become like an urban legend among some groups—Republicans, I think, have raised this issue—that there is a huge amount of voter fraud in inner cities. Voter fraud meaning people showing up at the polls and claiming to be somebody that they’re not, somebody who’s in the registration polls, but they are not the people who they claim to be. And the argument has been that this is going to swing big cities and big states in close elections. The evidence of this is next to non-existent. There is evidence that there is some fraud in absentee voting which is because absentee ballots can be collected centrally.
All of voter fraud efforts are targeted on making it harder for people to come to the polls. It’s ironic, but if there is any fraud, it is probably in absentee ballots. The main thing that the people who are trying to prevent voter fraud are looking for are government-issued photo IDs. Most people do have passports, and most people do have driver’s licenses. But poor people who don’t own cars generally don’t have driver’s licenses, and many elderly people have given up their driver’s licenses. So the two groups that are hit the hardest by this are people who don’t drive, either because they’re poor or because they live in a city in which they can rely on public transportation or because they’re no longer able to drive. The thing about voter ID stuff is that it doesn’t affect huge numbers of people; we’re talking about maybe five or 10 percent of the population.
So why focus on this group of people? Do conservatives groups believe that they are getting rid of people who will vote for Obama?
There is a partisan aspect to it that may not be entirely correct. It’s been said a lot of people affected by these rules are elderly. Many elderly people are Republicans. So Republicans, I think they think it’s going to help them—they may not always be right. I think there’s this vision of some kind of massive urban machine voter fraud mechanism—a little bit racially tinged, could be a lot racially tinged—but, I think also people affected are elderly people who don’t have driver’s licenses. Getting a driver’s license a government issued photo ID is a lot of work. But, that’s the argument; the people who defend this say there is a danger of fraud, and it’s not such a big hurdle for most people. The question is how comfortable are we with people who are the most disadvantaged people not being able to vote.
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