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Speaker addresses clean election reform

By Sarah Rutledge     5/15/08 7:00pm

For this election year, political fervor may have gripped many students on campus who look into donating money to fund their favored candidate's election. But Dr. Joan Mandle, president of Democracy Matters, an organization devoted to campaign financing that has 70 chapters in college campuses across the United States, claims these donations may not make a difference for many politicians, who mainly answer to corporate interests and the privileged elite. Mandle, a professor at Colgate University, spoke April 21 in the Miner Lounge of the Rice Memorial Center.Mandle began her talk, entitled "White House for Sale? Do Students Really Have a Voice?" by acknowledging former Student Association President Laura Kelley with arranging for her to come to Rice. Kelley, a Brown College senior, began her internship with Democracy Matters earlier this semester. Mandle said students in the internship focus on reaching out to other students and enacting political change on their college campuses.

Mandle shifted the focus to this year's election. She said this year marks the first election where candidates will raise more than $1 billion.

"Even more important than the absolute amount of money being spent is where that money comes from and its implications for democracy," Mandle said.

Mandle said 80 percent of the funding for political races comes from less than 1 percent of the American public.

"They tend to be men, white, rich and conservative, and the money tends to be focused on corporate earnings and holdings," Mandle said.

Thus far, this group of donors has given about equal funding to both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Mandle said. She said though there is a $4,600 limit for candidate donations - a limit on campaign donations was established in 1975 after the Watergate scandal - for the primary and presidential elections combined, many members of what she deemed the power elite bundle their contributions to ensure the candidate remembers their donations and acts in their best interests. With bundling, several members of a particular interest group send in their campaign donations together in the name of a business interest, the combined total of which amounts to a considerable amount of money. The group frequently reminds the candidate of their support and the candidate becomes indebted to them and takes part in legislation that will most benefit these supporters. This is not an illegal practice,

Mandle said she dislikes Obama's campaign message which encourages the support of small donors because a nominal donation will not make a difference when compared to the donors who bundle their contributions.

"There's just no way that a $25 contribution is going to balance against $1 million," Mandle said.

Political Action Committees, conversely, raise 20 percent of campaign funding. Mandle said PACs are limited in the funding they can raise and bundling is thus more effective. She said the bundling process and the extreme pull of outside corporate interests in legislation have resulted in many disillusioned Americans.

"The rest of the population is increasingly cynical about politics and feels elected officials are bought and sold," Mandle said.

Mandle said business interests give bundled donations to democratic and republican candidates alike and this process extends beyond the elections, as the president continues to answer to his biggest supporters. She says this type of stalemate occurs with the Iraq War, environmental policy and educational system legislation.

"Democracy is being undermined by the fact that, no matter who gets elected, in the White House or in congress they are up to their eyeballs in hock to the big donors who have hijacked our democracy and are calling all the shots on politics," Mandle said.

Referencing recurring plans to change the national healthcare system, Mandle said it is unlikely real change will take place soon. She said the pharmaceutical companies and HMOs threw money at politicians, which rendered many officials scared to support any sort of reform.

"I know they taught you in fourth grade that democracy was the place where the elected officials are accountable to the people and that we have the right to vote," Mandle said. "First, you don't vote . more than 50 percent of people don't vote for the president, never mind congress. People think, 'I don't have a voice, so why the hell should I vote?'"

Mandle said the solution to this problem lies in reforming election financing, referred to as clean or voter-owned elections. Under this public financing of elections - funded by approximately $2 per taxpayer each year - candidates run for office if they meet the age requirements, with equal funding given them from their state to run a competitive election. Voters can support this process by electing clean candidates for office, Mandle said. She said Maine is a success story, with 85 percent of its legislature clean.

"They care about what their constituents want and don't depend on votes or money from donors," Mandle said. "If an issue comes up, donors don't get in the door - it's ordinary citizens they answer to."

Mandle said public financing of elections might save taxpayers money, as they ordinarily pay the difference from corporations' tax breaks.

Mandle said clean elections help women, minorities, third-party and non-incumbent political candidates to run for office and give candidates equal support. She encouraged the audience to get involved with spreading the word about this alternative to the current political process.

"How can we expect to make change if young people are not involved?" Mandle said. "They still have a high level of belief that they can and want to change the future, whereas people my age have kind of given up.

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