Editorial: As PAC money tips a race, is election reform needed?
During the past couple of months, Vermonters have endured a tsunami of political ads jamming mailboxes with single-sheet pamphlets, flooding airwaves on TV and commercial radio, and popping up on social media ad nauseam.
It’s a distasteful shock to many Vermonters. Vermont has largely been spared from the flood of political advertising because we’re small, and our liberal bent hasn’t drawn the interest of a lot of special interest money. That changed this year as national political action committees jumped into the congressional race among four candidates in the Democratic Primary. Several national PACs supporting the gay-rights and LBGTQ agenda have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Becca Balint, who, if she wins, will be the first female congresswoman to represent Vermont, and also the first openly gay candidate to represent Vermont at the national level. Because of that single fact, her campaign is likely to receive just shy of a million dollars from various PACS pushing that cause.
What makes it such an issue is the amount of money that has poured into the race. As a comparison, in the General Election race for Lt. Governor two years ago, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray received $70,000 from a PAC in her race against Republican Scott Milne, who also received $200,000 from PACs in his effort to defeat Gray.
Balint’s campaign will likely exceed Milne’s PAC funding by as much as five times, and more than 10 times what Gray received in 2020. The support has been a game-changer for Balint.
The question, however, isn’t how to reign in candidates who solicit such funding, or tacitly accept it, but whether our primary electoral system in Vermont is up to the challenge of holding elections that aren’t captive to special interests.
In this particular case, when one cause (the LBGTQ agenda) can overwhelm a primary race with funding, how can Vermonters be sure that cause represents what a majority of Vermonters believe? And will such money continue to drive candidates in primaries further to the extremes in pursuit of special interest support?
Furthermore, because of Vermont’s current politics, the winner of the Democratic primary for Vermont’s lone congressional seat is almost assured to be the winner in the General Election this November — denying a majority of Vermonters, who won’t vote in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, a say in who they elect to Congress.
Some Democrats might look at Balint’s PAC funding, shrug their shoulders and say, hey, at least it’s from a cause that’s for equitable rights, so it’s OK. But what if the oil and gas industry, or the gun industry, backed a candidate with a million bucks in funding (which is not a lot on a national scale), wouldn’t Vermonters want to find a way to neutralize such spending?
Fifteen states have found a partial solution — the Open Primary. States as varied as Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana and Texas all require primaries to be open to all voters with the top four — or top two in California’s and Washington’s case —candidates moving on to the General Election. This ensures voters will determine the candidate most preferred by the greatest numbers of voters in the state, not just voters of one party.
In Alaska, they tout the “Open, Pick 1 Primary” as a way to ensure “that every Alaska voter has the right to have their voice heard — regardless of their political affiliation.” The process is simple: all voters get a single ballot with all candidates from all parties. The top four vote-getters advance to the General Election.
“Political parties still have the right to endorse candidates and show their support to the candidates they feel best embody their platform,” explains the group Alaskans for Better Elections, “they just no longer get to use taxpayer-funded, restrictive primaries to limit who can vote on candidates in the primary.”
As Vermont falls prey to the ills of too much national political action money, it’s an election reform that might serve the state well. We’re not suggesting that Balint’s views don’t adequately reflect a majority of Vermonters nor that her policies are out of step with most Vermonters, but if her campaign is a first for other milestones, it may also serve as a red flag for what could go wrong if the current system runs astray.
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