A Rigged System
You shouldn't need to hire a team of lawyers to run for Congress.
Those of you voting in Louisiana or Connecticut this week won't have the option of voting for Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr for president. In both states, Barr's campaign insists it had more than enough signatures to put his name on the ballot. But in Louisiana, the courts determined that Barr's campaign missed the filing deadline. That was in part because state offices were closed the week of the deadline, due to Hurricane Gustav. No matter. A federal court determined it would be too expensive to reprint the state ballots to include Barr's name.
In Connecticut, state officials initially said the Barr campaign came up about 500 names short of the 7,500 signatures required to put Barr's name on the ballot. They later acknowledged that they had made an additional error. Barr was only 321 names shy of the minimum. The state then admitted that state officials had actually lost 119 pages of signatures—almost certainly enough to put Barr over the top. Nevertheless, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Barr would not be on the ballot, citing testimony from Connecticut officials that it would be "nearly impossible" to reprint the ballots to include him.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the tables were turned. Both the Republican and Democratic parties somehow missed that state's deadline to include Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Texas ballot. Barr's campaign sued, noting the equal protection problems with allowing the two major parties to skirt campaign rules while holding third party candidates to the letter of the law. Barr was right—Obama and McCain should have been kept off the Texas ballot. But Barr's suit was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court without comment. Apparently, the Democratic and Republican parties are, to borrow a now-tired phrase, "too big to fail." They're allowed to break the rules.
Bob Barr has no chance of winning the election. But regardless of what you may think of his politics, or that of third-party candidates like Ralph Nader or Chuck Baldwin, this system is rigged. The two major parties have effectively cemented their grip on power by creating laws that make it virtually impossible for upstarts to compete with them. They have done with campaign laws what federal business regulations tend to do in the private sector—protect the behemoth, entrenched dinosaurs that dominate the industry by making it too expensive and difficult for anyone to challenge them.
In addition to ballot access laws, consider campaign finance rules. In his recent special "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Politics," ABC News reporter John Stossel profiled Ada Fisher, a woman attempting a low-budget, longshot run for Congress in North Carolina with a staff of volunteers. She found it impossible to comply with the election law without hiring a team of lawyers—which of course, she couldn't afford. Written in small print, single-spaced, Stossel found that the federal election code spans one-and-a-half football fields. Eventually, Fisher and her volunteer campaign treasurer were personally fined $10,000 by the FEC for filling late reports.
Stossel then cut to University of Missouri Professor Jeff Milyo, who ran an experiment in which he asked dozens of college-educated people to try to fill out various campaign finance forms and applications. Of the more than 200 people Milyo tested, Stossel reported, "every one of them violated the law." One participant added, "I'd rather not participate in the political process if it means I have to go through the nonsense I went through today."
That's exactly what the two major parties and the incumbents in Congress had in mind. Come up through their party structure, and you'll have a team of lawyers to help guide you through the process. Challenge them from the outside, and the laws they designed will cripple your candidacy.
Consider these two figures: Congress' approval rating right now is a dismal 19 percent. Clearly, we aren't happy with the people who are governing us. Yet 90-95 percent of the incumbents running for re-election to Congress can expect to win on any given election night. Many run unopposed. Between gerrymandering their districts to ensure a friendly electorate, campaign finance legislation, debate rules that effectively bar third-party participants, onerous ballot access rules, and the privileges of office, the Democrats and Republicans have ensured that the vast majority of the country will chose only between one of two candidates this year—candidates who, when it comes right down to it, really aren't all that different.
The system we have now selects for the sorts of people who want to make a career of politics. If, in order to successfully run for high office, you have to spend years culling favors and working your way up through one of the two major parties, the winners in this game are going to be the party loyalists and power-hungry climbers who couldn't hack it in the private sector—frankly, the last personality type we want governing.
It ought to be much easier to run for office. As it is now, the first task of anyone challenging an incumbent for federal office is to raise enough money to hire a team of lawyers to ensure that they're complying with election laws. There's something sordid about that.
It's difficult enough to raise enough money to mount a credible challenge that overcomes the name recognition and other advantages of incumbency. Congress then continually adds to that the enormous costs of navigating more and more layers of an expensive and confusing web of legalese. Perversely, defenders of these complex laws then justify them under the guise of "getting the influence of money out of politics."
How clever of them. What they're really doing is ensuring that incumbents stay in office, and that one of the two same-ish major parties always remains in power.