Political Spam == Campaign Finance Reform?

I’ve maintained for some time that while most spam is commercial, whether something is spam is not dependent on it being commercial. Charity spam, religious spam and political spam are just as bothersome as Viagra spam.

However, fellow EFFer Larry Lessig challenged me on this by asking whether we might want to allow political spam. Spam is super-cheap to send (that’s one reason it’s a problem) but as a very cheap form of advertising it could be an equalizer when it comes to campaign expenses, since a candidate would low-funding could spam almost as well as one with boatloads of special interest money. That’s unlike TV advertising, where the better funded candidate wins the game.

I have to admit that the current way elections are funded and political influence is bought and sold is a much more important problem than spam, so this is a question worth looking at.

Of course, it would be stupid for a politician to spam, even though they have exempted themselves from the spam laws. Spam generates such ill will (appropriately too) that I think a spam campaign from a candidate would backfire. Plus, I really don’t like the idea of regulating spam based on what it says — If it says one thing it’s banned, if it says another it’s OK.

But is there a germ of something worthwhile in here? What if the election officials managed the mailing list and voters had to be on it, for example. While I don’t hold to their logic, many anti-spammers also make their main beef about spam the idea that the recipient is being made to subsidize the cost of the sender’s ad campaign. However, if it brings about campaign finance reform in a meaningful way, this seems worth subsidizing.

The core idea here is that the internet is vastly more efficient at communicating messages than the old media, including political messages. Every candidate can and today does have a web site, so it is a bit of an equalizer, but candidates still feel the need to raise millions to blast radio, print and TV ads, billboards and signs, often to bring the voter to their web site. Or just slime the other candidate of course.

Things like Tivo are diminishing the value of TV ads, but candidates still try to raise giant piles of cash. Some are moving to spending the money on grass-roots organizing instead of TV, but they still want to spend the money.

I don’t want my mailbox filled, but let’s consider some alternatives.

First, we could try to educate voters that they have a civic duty to go to the internet (and other relatively cheap media, like the mailed-out voter’s guidebook) to investigate the candidates. A duty to say, “I’m not going to let the expensive advertising channels be the prime path to me for the candidate.”

One way to do this would be, when voting or registering, to have to answer a question about whether you did seek out these media. Something to check and sign saying “Yes, I did visit web sites for many of the candidates” or “Yes, I gave serious consideration to the voter booklet.” Not to force you to do this, but to answer whether you did and feel embarassed if you didn’t. (Or feel like a proud loyal party man who doesn’t need to check out the other candidates.)

We would also encourage — or even require — that all public internet terminals provide free access to all candidate and proposition web sites registered with the election officials, so that those without access still can get it. And encourage such sites to have MP3 files for the blind, and so on.

Another option would be official, regulated spam. Which is to say that, to register to vote, you would have to provide an E-mail address for receipt of your political spam, or swear that you don’t have an E-mail address. (I’m not suggesting we insist it be your main address, if you want it to be a hotmail box you never read, that’s up to you.)

This E-mail address would get mailings, but they would be mailed by the election officials on behalf of the candidates. Each candidate would be allowed (but not required) to provide an E-mail to be sent at various times (upon declaration, 3 weeks and 1 week and 2 days before the election, for example.) Voters might be allowed to control their subscriptions to opt out once they have made up their mind after receiving at least one mailing, or one mailing per month or other similar quota.

This spam would be highly targeted (precisely to registered voters in the right districts) and with the opt-out, by the end would be only going to undecided voters, just what the campaigns want.

Of course this doesn’t reach voters who are not regular E-mail users. And in some districts in the USA, the number of candidates and races is simply immense, which does present a problem, though one that only comes a few times a year. In other nations, such as my native Canada, where having more than 5 people on the whole ballot is a rarity, this E-mail load would be quite manageable. Voters might be allowed to opt-out of some candidates and not others with a web check form.

The goal here would be to make it possible to get your message to some large chunk of the voters without needing to raise a lot of money to do it. Yes, some candidates would still raise lots of money and they would get their message out more. With luck, this could be seen as a negative thing — a candidate who advertises a lot in expensive places is seen as the one who has been bought. Indeed some candidates in their E-mails and web sites would loudly point this out.

This would not be expensive to do. A lot cheaper than matching funds. And candidates would still spend money to try to reach those who opted out or don’t have email. (Though they will be a shrinking demographic and possibly one that doesn’t vote as often.)

In Australia the law requires you to vote. Requiring you to receive some E-mail from candidates seems a smaller burden.

Along with this, we could spend some money on official election web resources. For example, in each race, create a “pick your candidate” quiz voters can take. In this quiz, each candidate would be able to submit two (or more) “bellweather” questions to ask the voter, and earn points when the voter agrees with that candidate. Questions would be done in rounds. Each candidate sends in one question, then everybody sees all the questions, and they do another (rebuttal) question and so on.

Other thoughts: Spend some of the “matching funds” on the official web site, and on advertising in older media like TV to bring voters to the web site. Or base the amount of E-mail that can be sent on the amount raised by the best fundraiser in the campaign. Ie. if the incumbent raises $200M, everybody gets more internet promotion.

There’s lots more that could be done here. I welcome comments and hope other writers will come up with their own ideas. I have created a new category on the Blog, “New Democracy” to think about how computers can create new forms of democracy not possible when our systems were thought up.

You can vote for this idea at change.org.

I think you are missing the point. Most people
afraid of Nader running are afraid he will take
votes from Kerry, thus allowing Bush to win when
otherwise he wouldn't. Had Nader not run in 2000,
Gore would have one, despite Florida.

Of course, the real evil is the two-party system,
and Nader knows this. However, I think that he
overestimates himself (or, rather, the reaction
to him) when he says that the influence of him
running will cause folks to reform the system.
The system can be reformed only by the current
two parties, and they won't, since they would give
up more than they gain.

What is the lesser of two evils? I think the
lesser is for Nader not to run if Kerry otherwise
has a chance, rather than allowing Bush to win
while showing up the perversity of the system.
Intelligent people already realise it is perverse,
others won't be convinced, especially if it hurts
the left, not the right.

Kerry should have offered Nader the vice-presidency in return for not running, with a promise to really change the system if he is elected.

But it won't happen.

There's an article about voting theory in the
March Scientific American.

Two parties makes sense when the choice criteria
are clustered along one axis. And, a third party
should be able to break off from the middle in an
orthogonal direction when enough voters are
undecided between the two majority parties. The
third party candidate is not a spoiler when they
siphon equivalent numbers of votes from the established parties.

There is no purpose in complaining about the Greens
(or any other party on an extreme end of the major axis)
not catching hold. They are so far from a majority that their
appropriate role is simply to tug at the candidate closest to them.

The strongest third party in the US that is not
built around a cult of personality is the Libertarians.
But their message is too alien for most voters
(although they all seem to have personality.)

I guess the real question is, does the two-party
system artificially project diverse interests
onto a single left-right axis? Would better
policy result instead from dynamic coalitions for every issue?

The advantage of clustering by strong parties is that the process
of developing the party position entails negotiation and compromise that forces
some coherence among interests prior to facing the other party.

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