Tomorrow, we celebrate Independence Day, originally marking the end of our history as colonies of Great Britain. Our independence gave rise to a Constitution that has served us well. Today, 225 years after the end of our colonial experience, long after the U.S. became far more powerful than Britain, we live under a form of government that deserves our celebration and also our protection.
First, we are governed by elected representatives. To function as our representatives, elected officials must act in the interests of the public, which means that they should be independent of special interests whose goals or preferences may conflict with those of the broader society.
Tomorrow we celebrate this vision of democracy. We are not subject to the policies of rulers we did not choose. But our celebration must be tinged with caution. Candidates for elective office spend ever larger amounts to garner votes. As we see in current campaigns, this money is generated in one or both of two ways. Individuals with fortunes can fund their own campaigns. Or candidates solicit donations from supporters. Candidates naturally turn to those who can donate or collect the largest amounts: wealthy individuals, corporations and organizations that may foresee governmental actions that could facilitate or hinder their goals.
While candidates may sincerely believe that once elected, their actions will not be influenced by major donors, we see at every level what looks very like the distortion of policy by these agendas. Is it coincidence that the oil industry, which makes major donations in every election cycle, has received such favorable treatment as tax breaks and lax regulation?
Several states and Congress have moved to curb the excessive influence of wealthy special interests. Campaign finance reform takes many forms, from requiring disclosure of sources of large donations to providing comprehensive public funding for campaigns for elected office.
The latter strategy is most direct: Candidates who show the support of many potential voters receive a specified amount of public funds to pay their campaign expenses, in return for refusing other donations. Various aspects of this strategy have been rejected by the courts as infringing on the freedom of speech. Advocates and lawmakers in states affected by these court rulings (including Hawaii) are tinkering with their comprehensive public campaign funding laws to ensure fair, legal and competitive elections.
Second, we certainly can celebrate the right of citizens to express desires and needs at the ballot box, free of onerous restrictions on access or information.
The right of citizens to participate in elections is fundamental to our representative democracy. But again we need to be vigilant to protect this independence. Many unnecessary restrictions on voting rights have been enacted: burdensome registration requirements that disadvantage citizens by limiting access to registration processes or by requiring proofs of identity or citizenship that are not available to all citizens; ballots printed in languages that some citizens can’t understand; changing or eliminating polling places or not providing adequate accommodations for people with disabilities to cast their votes, etc.
For constituents to provide meaningful and timely input, by voting or direct communication to their representatives, they must be aware of governmental processes. Sunshine laws and other mechanisms for open and accountable government must be maintained, observed and monitored, with consequences for failure to implement required access.
Such access often depends on independent sources of news. Traditionally Americans have been able to celebrate some of the most diverse and independent media sources of any country. But the consolidation of media outlets and relaxation of restrictions on mergers threaten access to information.
Yes, let’s celebrate Independence Day — and actively promote a government independent of special interests, elected by empowered voters informed by open government and by independent news sources.
Beppie J. Shapiro, with the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, wrote this for the Star-Advertiser.