Can the big web sites save the political system
I've written before about one of the greatest flaws in the modern political system is the immense need of candidates to raise money (largely for TV ads) which makes them beholden to contributors, combined with the enhanced ability incumbents have at raising that money. Talk to any member of congress and they will tell you they start work raising money the day after the election.
Last year I proposed one radical idea, a special legitimizing of political spam done through the elections office. That will take some time as it requires a governmental change. So other factors are coming forward.
In some states and nations, efforts are already underway to have the government finance elections. The Presidential campaign fund that you contribute to whether you check the box on the tax return or not is one effort in this direction.
I propose that the operators of the big, advertising-supported web sites, in particular sites like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Myspace and the like join together to create a program to give free web advertising to registered candidates on a fair basis. This could be done by simply providing unsold inventory, which is close to free, or it could be real valuable inventory including credits for targetted ads.
Of course, not everybody reads the web all day, so this only reaches one segment of the population, but it reaches a lot. The main goal is to reduce the need, in the minds of candidates, to raise a lot of money for TV ads. They won't stop entirey, but it might get scaled back.
Such a system would allow users the option of setting a cookie to provide preferences for the political ads they see. While each candidate would get one free shot, voters could opt-out of ads for specific candidates or races. (In some cases the geography-matcher would get it wrong and they would change the district the system think they are in.) They could also tone down the amount of advertising, or opt in or out of certain styles (flash, animated, text, video.)
It would be up to candidates to tune their message, and not overdo things or annoy voters, pushing them to opt out.
There can't be too much opting out though, because the goal here is to deliver the same thing that candidates rely on TV for -- pushing their message at voters who have not gone seeking it. If we don't provide that, we'll never cut the dependency on TV and other intrusive ads. Allowing these ads to be intrusive seems wrong, but the real thing to do is consider the competition, and what its thirst for money does to society. Thanks to the internet, we've reduced the price of advertising by an order of magnitude. If the price of advertising is what corrupts the political system, it seems we should have a shot of fixing the problem.
Ads would be served by the special consortium managing the opt-out system, not the candidate, in order to protect privacy. So if you click on an ad for a candidate, the first landing page is not hosted by the candidate, but may have links to their site.
A system would have to be devised to allocate "importance" to elections. Ie. how many ads do the candidates for President get vs. those for state comptroller.
One risk is that the IRS or other forces might try to declare this program a political contribution by the web sites. If applied fairly to all candidates, we'll need a ruling that states it is not a contribution. This is needed, because otherwise sites will balk at the idea of running free ads for candidates they dispise.
If the system got powerful enough, it could even make a bolder claim. It could only allow the free advertising to candidates who agree to spending limits in other media. On one hand this is just what most campaign finance reform programs do to avoid the 1st amendment. On the other hand, it may seem like an antitrust violation -- deliberately giving stuff away not just to kill the "competition" but actually forbidding the candidates from spending too much with the competition.
This need not be limited to the web of course. Other media could join in, though the ones that already make a ton of money from political advertising (TV, radio) are not so likely to join.
This won't solve the whole problem, but it could make a dent, and even a dent is pretty important in a problem as major as this.