Free Airtime for Candidates

Common Cause


In our democracy, speech is free but communication is expensive-and never more so than during the campaign season. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our problems with money and politics. As the cost of political communication keeps rising, the competitive playing field of campaigns keeps tilting toward candidates who are wealthy or well-financed. Not only does the better-funded candidate almost always win in our system, but, increasingly, these victories come at the end of campaigns that are so lopsided that they rob voters of genuine choice. In the 435 races for U.S. Congress in 2000, for example, the typical winner outspent the typical loser by nearly three to one during the campaign, and on election day, piled up a victory margin of 70 percent to 30 percent-a landslide. A staggering 98.5 percent of all incumbents seeking reelection were successful. [1] In our gilded age of politics, if you're a challenger who can't write a big check to your local television station to pay for a nightly bombardment of ads, you'll still have your freedom of speech. You just won't have the ability to be heard, much less elected.

Election campaigns are democracy's crown jewel. They are the indispensable moment when the "outs" clash with the "ins" over their competing visions for a better society. They allow for disagreements to be ventilated, fresh starts to be launched, or the status quo to be affirmed. They build mandates and provide for accountability. At their best, they transform a population into a citizenry-and, come election day, a citizenry into a sovereign. But when money becomes the arbiter of who gets heard and who gets elected, campaigns serve all these functions less effectively than they should. Citizens are denied the contest of ideas and range of choices that are supposed to be what elections are all about. And once the election is over, the public is too often left with elected officials who are more beholden to their contributors than to their constituents. This breeds a cynicism that drives citizens away from politics-pushing the cost of communicating to them even higher. And so the vicious cycle churns.

Our democracy has struggled with this dilemma for a long time and for a good reason: it presents a clash of core democratic values. On the one hand, we resist limits on what candidates can say or at what volume they can say it; it offends our cherished principle of free speech. On the other hand, when some candidates can speak with a megaphone and others only in a whisper, all depending on the size of their wallets, it offends the values of equal access and fair play we also prize in our democracy.

The most promising way to reconcile these competing values is to create a system of free air time on broadcast television, as is done in virtually all of the world's other democracies. Free air time would increase the flow and reduce the cost of political communication on the most important medium for politics and democracy-the broadcast airwaves. To best achieve these goals, a free air time system should impose two separate mandates on the broadcast industry. It should require television and radio stations to devote a reasonable amount of air time during the campaign season to issue-based candidate forums such as debates, interviews, town hall meetings, etc. And it should require stations to provide qualifying candidates and parties with vouchers to run a reasonable number of free ads in the period before an election.

Free air time is not a panacea; it will not drive money out of politics altogether. But by providing a floor of communication opportunities to candidates regardless of their financial circumstances, it would open up the political process to those currently priced out of the market. And by creating forums that allow for a free exchange of ideas among competing candidates, it would reduce the relative importance of moneyed special interests. These steps would provide citizens with more choice, more information, more power.

In the land of free speech, we have permitted a system of "paid speech" to take hold during political campaigns on the closest thing we have to a public square-our broadcast airwaves. This not only restricts access to our political process, it's also poor stewardship of a precious public asset. For decades we've permitted the broadcast industry to profiteer on our airwaves at the expense of our democracy. Let's follow the bouncing ball. Our government gives broadcasters free licenses to operate on the public airwaves on condition that they serve the public interest. During the campaign season, broadcasters turn around and sell access to these airwaves to candidates at inflated prices. Meanwhile, many candidates sell access to the government in order to raise special interest money to purchase access to the airwaves. It's a wonderful arrangement for the broadcasters, who reap windfall profits from political campaigns. It's a good system for incumbents, who prosper in the big-dollar, high-ante political culture of paid speech. But it's a lousy deal for the rest of us.

As Congress grapples with the problem of money and politics, the focus of legislative reforms in recent years has been on proposals to reduce the supply of political money-chiefly by banning "soft money," the large donations that go to political parties. Because these unlimited checks have the greatest potential to create the appearance or reality of corruption, banning them is a necessary first step. But it is only a first step. If Congress is to look for a more comprehensive solution, it must address the need to reduce the demand for political money as well. Free air time is the most promising, practical and equitable way to achieve that goal.

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