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. . . And the Power of the Ballot

By Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page C07


When we ran against each other in 1976, the modern campaign finance system was in its infancy; it was the first presidential election governed by strict limits and public financing. Looking back, it is easy to recognize why the reforms of the 1970s were so essential. Today it is disheartening to witness changes that have distorted those reforms and shaken Americans' faith in their democracy.

We have watched as elections have grown more controversial, more expensive, riddled with soft money and less understandable to the average voter. We have watched as participation in presidential elections has declined – plummeting during the last election to the lowest levels since 1924.

Less than half of the voting-age population cast their ballots for president in 1996, and while there are many factors that might contribute to this disturbing figure, we believe that a lack of public trust in government and in our system of democratic elections is a major part of the problem. When people feel disenfranchised from their political system, they stop participating in it. And when that happens, democracy suffers.

We have both worked in our public lives toward the goal of exporting our democratic system to other nations. Our model (or "the U.S. model") must be fundamentally reformed in terms of campaign financing to warrant the faith of other countries.

We can both personally attest that there is no greater honor than to serve your country. Yet the honor of public service is being tarnished by a system of campaign funding that has made many Americans lose faith in the concept of public service as a virtue. That service is diminished when elected officials are forced to spend so much time raising money instead of focusing on the many important issues they were elected to address.

We firmly believe that now is the time to restore Americans' faith in their democracy, their government and their democratically elected institutions. Meaningful, bipartisan campaign finance reform is needed to rein in a system that is out of control.

As a minimal first step, Congress and the president should approve legislation that bans soft money, enhances enforcement of existing campaign finance laws and creates a more accountable disclosure system that informs rather than obfuscates. These are the areas identified by former vice president Walter Mondale and former senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker in their effort to promote reform. It is particularly important to seize this opportunity for reform now so it can improve the next presidential election.

In order to accomplish this goal, both parties must lay down their partisanship and rise to meet this challenge together. Leaders of both parties have demonstrated their ability to work together on critical and contentious issues to do what is right for the country. This is another such issue where cooperation is the only road to results. It is impossible to expect one side to disarm unilaterally in this massive arms race for funds. Rather, both sides must agree that bilateral limits are the only rational course of action to preserve the moral integrity of our electoral system.

One item that we should all agree on is a ban of so-called "soft money" for national parties and their campaign committees. Soft money was initially intended exclusively for "party building" activities but has metamorphosed into a huge supplemental source of cash for campaigns and candidates. It is one of the most corrupting influences in modern elections because there is no limit on the size of donations – thus giving disproportionate influence to those with the deepest pockets.

According to the Federal Elections Commission, both parties raised a record-breaking $262 million in soft money during the 1996 elections. Recent news reports showed that figure will be shattered again in 2000 if current fund-raising rates continue.

These figures make it absolutely clear what is at stake. If Congress does not act now to stem this massive flow of soft money, Americans' cynicism and mistrust of government will only increase. And that step is only the beginning of needed fundamental reform.

We must demonstrate that a government of the people, by the people and for the people is not a thing of the past. We must redouble our efforts to assure voters that public policy is determined by the checks on their ballots rather than the checks from powerful interests.

Jimmy Carter was president from 1977 to 1981. Gerald Ford was president from 1974 to 1977.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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