Cramming for the Election Day test

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(Host) Election Day is right around the corner. Commentator Allen Gilbert says there’s still time to do some homework before the big test.

(Gilbert) As Election Day nears, my thoughts are bouncing between two views of politics. One view is that expressed by the late Senator Paul Wellstone. “Politics,” Wellstone told supporters, “is about the improvement of people’s lives.”

The other view is a cynical one. It suggests that American politics is a commodity that can be purchased by the highest bidder. A Washington columnist once described the results of big-spending, hard-fought campaigns as “the best government money can buy.”

No matter which view you may lean towards, you’re in a very difficult position if you still don’t know which candidates will get your vote next week. You’re like the kid who hasn’t studied for the test that’s coming up. And, just as in school, “cramming” isn’t your best strategy. Forget the slick ads, glossy flyers, and campaign promises. Instead, check the record. Find out how candidates have voted throughout their political careers. And check out where their financial support is coming from.

I once spent several days in the Secretary of State’s office in Montpelier, combing through campaign finance reports. I had a freelance writing assignment to research the flow of money in Vermont political races. To be sure, some contributors were ordinary citizens sending in checks for $25 or $50. But there were also drug companies, financial services companies, lobbying groups, political action committees, and even news media executives.

Tracing how money moves through the campaign system is as interesting as looking at who gives. For example, individuals, or local organizations, might act as conduits for money from hot-button special-interest groups. The NRA, for example, might channel money to a “SportPac” located at some Vermont address. SportPac then distributes money to a series of local candidates. It’s legal money-laundering, and masks the true source of the funds. By Election Day, most candidates have gathered a fistful of IOUs. And this gives you a pretty good idea of whose phone call they’ll take before a big vote.

Thanks to the [Internet], you can now view campaign finance reports online, at the Vermont Secretary of State’s site. Take a moment to log on and to dig into the records. I especially encourage you to look at reports for local candidates. Many House and Senate races remain straightforward, low-budget affairs. But others have become convoluted webs of money where tens of thousands of dollars are spent to win a legislative seat. Much of the money is from outside the local district.

One Senate candidate is on track to be this year’s big spender in local races. He’s raised over $60,000. His sources range from small $25 contributions to much larger ones from individuals as far away as Geneva, Switzerland. Corporations, lobbying groups, politicians, and political action committees, are all well-represented. All politics may be local, but the money that greases the wheels comes from all over.

Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday. But do a bit of homework before the big test.

This is Allen Gilbert.

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