Massachusetts has consistently ranked at or near the bottom of contested elections and has chronically been near the bottom of all states in terms of competitive races. Surely many a voter will be disappointed as they look at the choices, or lack of them, on their ballot come Election Day.
Why do we not have more choices at the ballot box? What is the number one reason that people choose not to run for public office? Why is it so difficult to beat an incumbent? The answer to all of these questions should come as no surprise. Money, or the lack thereof, is “the” major obstacle facing most candidates entering our electoral process and the main reason for such a dearth of competitive races is the large amounts of money that incumbents accumulate in their campaign War-Chest.
The excess of money that is allowed to perpetuate within the campaign system presents a barrier to entry for new candidates and compromises the chances otherwise viable candidates have against incumbents. Indeed, one of the fundamental ways in which political party leaders and the media judge a candidacy is by “How much money can you raise.” Cash is King and the amount of funds any candidate wishing to be viable has to raise is daunting.
Solid political science data shows a high correlation between winning campaigns and money. Quite simply, candidates that outspend their opponents win, in fact during the past decade virtually every incumbent with a spending advantage has won reelection and nearly 95% of all Legislative races were won by the candidate that spent the most money. Undoubtedly, money is the foremost factor when it comes to running for and winning elective office. Yes, raising money is a necessary part of running for office, but the rules of the race are not the same for all participants.
Our current system favors elected officials because they are allowed to build unchecked War-Chests of money. The amount of funds in their campaign accounts often reaches levels that intimidate most people of running against, let alone beating, an incumbent. Incumbents already enjoy the advantages that their office brings them, such as increased media exposure, mailing benefits and the ability to stockpile money in their campaign warchest. Does this provide for a level playing field among all candidates?
There is a simple solution to this problem and a way with which to level the playing field for all candidates; Sunset the money. Particularly, start the incumbent’s account off with the same amount of money that a challenger would have. This would include an amount of money that any candidate lent to his/her own campaign. So, for example, if a new candidate start’s his campaign off with $0 dollars then the incumbent would have to start off with zero dollars. If a new candidate chooses to lend him/herself $10,000, then and only then could the incumbent use $10,000, but no more, from his/her account.
There would be limits as to how much total money could be kept in any candidates campaign account and if the money is not expended within that election cycle then it would “sunset” or expire into a central Office of Campaign & Political Finance account for election related expenses. This sun setting would prevent current officeholders from stockpiling large amounts of money that make it so intimidating and impractical to run against. Incumbents already have the advantages that their office brings them. Why should they be allowed to continually build such a financial advantage as well?
Our Commonwealth has qualified people who want to run for public office. But they are often scared away by the large amounts of money that incumbents accumulate. Let us sunset the money and level the playing filed for all candidates. Let us have Massachusetts lead the way into increased candidate participation for public office.
David D’Arcangelo is a community & political activist and has worked in the Governor’s Office, State Senate, and Political Campaigns.