Exit polls conducted by six major television networks and news services on Election Day this year showed that over 40 percent of people described corruption as an “extremely important” issue in determining who they voted for. It beat out things like terrorism, the economy and the war in Iraq. This shocked many people across the country, myself included. In a country with too many guns and not enough health care, quality education or jobs, when we have Americans dying overseas in a war with no end in sight and more of our children entering into poverty every day, why was an issue like corruption so important in this election?
Of those people who listed corruption as their most important issue, they voted for Democrats over Republicans 60 percent of the time. Seven incumbent Republicans who were closely tied to corruption scandals, such as those with ties to Jack Abramoff, lost their races.
The American people have made it clear that corruption is not something that will be tolerated on their watch. We as a country are ready for a change. And the change that we need is full public financing of federal elections. Members of Congress are proposing many different ethics reforms. While these are absolutely a step in the right direction, they will not do enough to solve the factor that has led to so many of the corruption scandals we have seen in the past few years: money in politics.
The role of money in our political system is unbelievably strong. It affects issues from the environment and prescription drugs to what we eat and what we watch on television. While it often seems not to be a particularly sexy issue, the exit polls clearly show that this perception is changing. Americans want their representatives to be responsible to them, not to special interests and big business. They want their tax dollars supporting education and health care, not tax breaks for oil companies. They want their representatives in the Capitol voting, not off on lobbyist-sponsored trips around the world.
The system we have in place forces even the most “ethical” of our representatives to be in a position where they have to take money from big business and special interests in order to be elected. They are essentially forced to be “corrupt” even if they don’t want to. This system is unfair to Congress and to the American people.
Public financing of elections would allow our representatives to represent us fairly. They can cast the votes that are in the best interest of their constituents, as well as have more time to spend with them, instead of just lobbyists. If we truly want progress in our country, this is a necessary step.
In our newly elected Congress, there are 108 members who are on record as being in favor of full public financing of elections. This is over double what we’ve seen in the past. Over half of the challengers who defeated incumbents openly supported public financing. Public financing of elections on the federal level has been a dream of many activists for years, but this is the first time that there has really been an opportunity to make it a reality. The new Democratic Congress has the chance to change the American political landscape in a dramatic way. By passing proposed legislation that would put in place full public financing of all federal elections, they can open up the political process in a way that this country has never seen. Not only would it be the answer that these “anti-corruption voters” are looking for, but also it would mean that more women, minorities and non-rich Americans can run for and win high political offices. This change is a necessary step in making a true democracy.
The American people elected Democrats in this election because they wanted real change. They were tired of the way this country is moving, and want it go in a direction that supports their best interests. I hope the Democrats will take this opportunity and use it to improve America.
Jennifer James is a junior in Morse College and the president of Yale Students for Clean Elections.