Opinion Columns & Blogs

Voting on state issues can affect the nation

The August primaries are behind us, and I voted. My candidate led her nearest opponent by 700 votes. I felt like my vote mattered.

In theory, by voting, we elect legislators who represent us. But lots of people don’t agree. Only 39 percent of registered voters in Thurston County voted last month, down from a high of 57 percent in 1992.

A new report has been released that unfortunately confirms the apparent skepticism of would-be voters.

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page designed a statistical study to determine which set of actors has the most influence over public policy: average citizens, economic elites, or organized interest groups.

Gilens and his team looked at 1,779 cases when a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change. These surveys took place between between 1981 and 2002. The policy choice in each case was clear—yes or no—and the survey included self-reported income data for all respondents.

Gilens and Page took all the responses from people at the 90th income percentile and used them as a proxy for a group they called the “economic elites.” They took all the responses from people at the 50th income percentile and used them as a proxy for “average voters.” To come up with a way to understand the influence of interest groups, they combined Fortune magazine’s lists of the most powerful 25 interest groups each year with the 10 industries that had the highest reported lobbying expenditures each year. They then looked at the positions the groups took on each of the 1,779 policy choices.

Here’s what they found: economic elites have more influence than any other set of actors in the making of U.S. policy. Organized interest groups, including corporations, also have a highly significant influence.

They wrote, “not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.”

Page calls our current system “democracy by coincidence.” On most of the policy cases in the study, the preferences for average citizens matched those of economic elites. However, Gilens and Page found that correspondence breaks down when they distinguish between the policy preferences of the upper 10 percent and the upper 1 percent. The more elite the economic elite are, the less their policy preferences match those of ordinary voters.

What’s to be done? Patrick Flavin, from Baylor University, has been studying state campaign finance laws, and whether they increase political equality. In other words, he’s looked at whether campaign finance laws increase the likelihood that average voter preferences will be represented in public policy. It turns out they do. States with stricter campaign finance laws have enacted more policies in tune with average voter interests.

When elections — and the policies that follow -- can be bought, they will be bought. When we regulate the flow of money in elections, we get policies that better represent the public’s interest.

Changing campaign financing at a state level is hard. Changing it at the federal level is nearly impossible. But, champions of democracy persist.

This week, the Senate will vote on SJ Res 19 (Senate Judiciary Resoltion 19) to amend the Constitution in two important ways. It would give Congress and the states the power to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections. It would also give Congress and the sStates the power to distinguish between natural persons and corporations, and prohibit the latter from spending money to influence elections. The measure might pass -- GovTrack.us gives it a 55 percent chance. Senators Cantwell and Murray are supporters.

The corresponding bill in the House has no chance of passing—GovTrack gives it a 0 percent chance—but to his credit, Congressman Denny Heck is a sponsor.

An amendment to the Constitution would still have to be ratified by three fourths of the states. Sixteen states have already done so, with twenty-four to go. Washington is one of them.

Washington state’s “Move to Amend” campaign is pushing for a legislative initiative next year. To keep it from falling on deaf ears, we need to elect state legislators who support the basic premise of democracy—government responds to the will of the people.

Depending on your income, your vote may not make much difference at the federal level. But your vote does matter in Washington state. Vote here, and we may be able to make our votes count in the other Washington too.