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Friday, Nov 21, 2014
Commentary

Outsiders hijack local elections

Published:

Are we witnessing the death of local determination of elections?

Sure, the registered voters of the community are the only ones who can actually cast a ballot, but are they getting local representation or a nationalized, prepackaged product that is being marketed by others with little to no regard for their wellbeing?

Call me a Pollyanna, but I liked the good old days when candidates decided to run because they wanted to be the voice for the best interests of their community. Candidates knew the issues, knew the community and knew many of the voters. A campaign was a local event and a two-way conversation between voters and a person earning their trust to represent them.

Campaigning involved mixing with voters at events, forums, fairs and public spaces. It involved letting voters see you, talk to you, question you, get to know you. Some of that still occurs today, but what is missing is the candidate serving as master of his or her own campaign.

For those living in the Tampa Bay media market, my condolences for what you had to endure over the past three months. With very little other political action taking place nationally, the special election in Congressional District 13 to fill the seat of longtime U.S. Rep. Bill Young attracted a massive amount of national attention and interference in a race that should have been a local matter.

When did we go from local communities picking an individual to a nationalized media campaign to influence and deceive us into buying what they’re trying to sell?

And why do we allow these outsiders to take our fundamental right and responsibility away from us? The answer is two-fold: ignorance and money.

There’s not much we can do about the obscene amount of money that pours into these races. The Citizens’ United ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court allows the almost unfettered expenditure of money to corrupt and corrode the ability of candidates to control their campaigns. Conversely, candidates are limited in the amount of money they can collect from a contributor.

How does it make sense that outside groups could have more court-protected influence to affect the outcome of an election than a resident of the area to be represented or the candidate himself?

This skewed system is a travesty to all involved. It vastly undermines the candidate’s ability to control his or her message, strategy, actions and timing. Instead, the candidate has to react, explain, apologize and put out fires.

I feel sorry for today’s candidates who become, at times unwillingly, puppets of the outside groups that have hijacked their campaigns. It’s almost impossible to hold candidates accountable when their campaigns have become so contaminated by others whom they cannot coordinate with. In fact, they cannot even prevent an outside group that is campaigning for them from airing a particular ad or sending out a mail piece that they find objectionable.

For example, more than $12 million poured into the CD13 race over the past three months. Roughly $9 million of it was from outside groups. That’s right, three-quarters of all the spending came from outside the actual campaign!

Although political operatives, pundits and junkies can tell which ads come from the candidates and which come from the outside groups, voters were more often confused or unaware of the difference. Today, the only winners in campaigns are the political consultants and advisers to the political committees that reap gobs of campaign cash.

It’s time to take back control and accountability in political campaigns, but it starts with voters getting angry, educated and involved.

That means access to the voting booth, including vocally opposing any attempt to restrict their choices of where, when and how to cast their ballots.

It also means a fairer, more transparent , common-sense method of drawing district lines that benefit a community rather than a political party.

It means insisting on policies that put the candidates in control of their own campaigns and drastically limit outside influences. One idea: Anyone who advocates for a candidate cannot use an image of the candidate or his or her name without the candidate’s written approval. That change would allow voters to truly hold the responsible party accountable. It means voters should support the candidates who promise to clean up the cesspool of special-interest money that influences what should be their decision and theirs alone.

Today candidates face a Hobson’s choice of take it or leave it from the powerful money sources. Let’s make it preferable for them to leave it.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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