Bait & Switch: More on the Voters First Pledge

September 29, 2006   •  By Brad Smith   •    •  
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Yesterday three organizations – Common Cause, Public Campaign, and Public Citizen, issued a release touting a “Voters First” pledge.  The goal is to get candidates for Congress to sign on to a pledge to “make elections fair,” “restore accountability,” and “Protect Voters’ Right-to-Know.”  We’re not sure there are any candidates for congress who oppose these goals, so at first glance people might be a bit puzzled as to what this is about. 
On closer examination, however, it appears to us that the campaign is, at least in part, about misleading the public and members of congress about the level of support for publicly funded political campaigns.  In this press release issued yesterday, we noted the reform groups’ misleading representation of data, including a decision to count less than 5 percent of candidates who had not signed the pledge in the category, “not signed.”  We also noted their citation to polling data that is out of line with other polls, including a substantially larger sample in a recent poll for CCP.  The reform groups seem unwilling to release – or at least make readily available –  the actual survey questions asked of respondents.  But a poll conducted earlier this year for CCP by Rasmussen Reports, of 2000 likely voters, asked, “Should the federal government provide public funding for all political campaigns?”  Only 28 percent responded affirmatively. 
It appears that Voters’ First is also engaged in a bit of the ole’ bait and switch.  Read this letter to Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate.  Although Mr. Steele is not listed in the “not signed” category on the Voters’ First website, apparently he has not signed, and the letter is intended to convince him to sign.  In the letter, the Voters’ First pledge is described as one to make “elections fair, enhance accountability, and protect voters’ right-to-know.”  There is not a word in the letter to Lt. Governor Steele about taxpayer financing of campaigns. If this is the normal pitch for Voters First, then we suspect that the at least some signatures on the pledge have come from candidates who fail to pay attention to what the pledge itself actually calls for, paying attention only to the sales pitch. 
In other words, candidates are asked in the letter – at least the letter sent to Lt. Governor Steele –  to sign with an emphasis on “fairness,” “accountability,” and “right-to-know.”  Who is against any of those things?  But we do not see anything – not a word – about “public financing” or “using tax dollars” or anything of the kind. 
Yet the first thing out of the box in the press release to the public is support for “clean elections,” the euphemism the reform groups use for taxpayer funding of campaigns.  It speaks volumes about the reform community that they believe that such euphemisms are necessary to gain support – after all, who can be opposed to “clean elections” – and then cites to polling data (although apparently they refuse to release the actual questions polled) on government financing of campaigns.  The release then goes on to quote Joan Claybrook claiming that “public funding of elections is the only real solution to the problem of money in politics,”  and to cite Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign for the proposition that the number of signatories indicates “growing support within Congress for … Clean Elections-style public financing.”
In short, one pitch – lobbying reform, which most Americans support – is used to gain signers, who are then touted as having endorsed taxpayer funding of campaigns.
Voters’ First concludes its letter to Lt. Governor Steele by asking him to, “drop the empty slogans.”  We don’t know if Michael Steele is spouting “empty slogans,” but we certainly agree that honesty and integrity are key characteristics of anyone who would legitimately claim the mantle of government “reform.”

Brad Smith

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