Is it just me, or do you also feel that our presidential elections are an enormously expensive, all-consuming and never-ending practice? If so, why not restore some sensibility in our democracy, or what is left of it after the congressional gerrymandering of the electoral districts, and try two things quite differently? The first would be to change the scheduling of the presidential primary elections, and the second would be to change the funding of the elections themselves.

  As to scheduling, what if our country were to be divided geographically or otherwise into four sections for our presidential primary elections? All of the states in the first section would have their presidential primaries on the same day, let’s say in March. Then four weeks later the second group of states would have their primaries, four weeks after that the third, and a final four weeks later the fourth. Then the scheduling of each presidential election in the following years would be rotated, so that last election’s fourth section would be first in the next election, and the former first would be second, etc.

  Today as you have seen, many states are continually moving their primary elections forward so that they can be more influential in the presidential nominating process. For example, Arizona is now trying to move its primary election forward by three weeks to February 5, so that it will join at least 19 other states, including California, with primaries or caucuses on that date. In response, Iowa is talking about moving its caucuses up to December so it can maintain its substantial influence in the election process. This would mean the formal presidential process would last for almost a year until the general election in November.

Of course, since the primaries and caucuses are earlier, the candidates are starting their campaigns ever earlier as well, which naturally requires them to raise even more money to be competitive. Unfortunately the way things are going, it will soon not be an exaggeration to say that some candidates will begin campaigning for the 2012 presidential election before the 2008 election has even been completed.

  Even though each state individually would have to accept this new program, this change would stabilize and bring some sensibility back to the election process. It would not give any particular state a permanent undue amount of influence, but it would reduce the physical and financial war of attrition that is now a fixture in presidential primary elections.

  The second suggestion is to change our election financing laws to allow all flesh and blood people to donate whatever amounts of money they wish to any candidate of their choice. No limits. No contributions from non-human beings such as corporations, labor unions, or political parties, etc. would be allowed. But it would be required that all contributions above a threshold level, such as the present $200, be disclosed on the Internet within 24 hours of receipt by the campaign.

  Today if Bill Gates were to decide to run for office he could literally spend billions of his own dollars to finance his own campaign without any legal problems. As a matter of free speech and fundamental fairness, why should he not be allowed to spend the same amount of money for the election of various other candidates of his choice? Then, since the contributions would be fully and publicly disclosed, if the voters were concerned that any recipient candidate would be “in the pocket” of Bill Gates or whoever the contributor was, the voters could decide in their wisdom to elect that candidate’s opponent.

  As a practical matter, in today’s system the two major political parties are able to get around all of the campaign finance restrictions one way or another. This is done by “bundling,” where campaign donors solicit checks from their friends, family and colleagues for a particular candidate. Another way is for the candidate’s political party to use its own money, called “soft” money, to pay for things like mail and telephone campaigns or other beneficial exposures for that chosen candidate. And, of course, there is always the infamous “section 527 funding.” This practice is named after the section of the federal tax code under which “independent” groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for the candidate of their choice, as long as they do not “coordinate” that spending at all with the campaign itself (wink, wink).  

So let’s cut out the deception and the chicanery and allow the campaign donations to be contributed fully and openly. As a practical matter, election campaign finance cannot effectively be reformed. The fundraisers and donors will always be able to outsmart the regulators, and since the members of Congress have already mastered the art of election finance and use that mastery for their own personal re-election, they certainly cannot be realistically expected to pass more effective laws that will reduce their own chances for easy cash.

  So eliminating contributions from non-human sources would not only reduce electoral corruption and gamesmanship, it would also along the way reduce the influence of big lobbying organizations like corporations and labor unions. These groups ideally should not be involved in political elections in the first place, because they are using the monies of their shareholders or members without their permission. Of course, if the shareholders or union members want to contribute to a particular candidate, under the new program they would be allowed to do so to their heart’s content – subject to full public disclosure. So they would have no complaint.

  After the 2004 national election, columnist Arianna Huffington wrote (with tongue at least partially in cheek) that we really should do away with the elections themselves, and simply award the political offices to the candidates that raise the most money. Unfortunately, as a practical matter that is virtually what we are doing today under our present system. So let’s recognize reality and change the system, and thereby do away with the long, interminable presidential election process and the ineffective campaign funding laws for them. Then maybe we might actually start to get back a little bit of our democracy. 

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)