Limited government is an integral part of the fabric of representative democracy in Utah and America. Our founding fathers introduced the principle of limited government to define, limit, and separate the powers of government and to increase the people’s control over their government. The process of regular elections and the separation of the branches of government represent some of the efforts of the founding fathers to promote a government that would lead to a large, successful, and powerful nation while respecting the rights of the people.
While the Constitution established some devices to encourage limited government it is time that we consider others, including term limits. A term limit is a legal cap on the number of (usually successive) terms an elected official can serve. One example is the US President who is limited to two successive terms. Term limits for Utah’s elected officials will help to provide a more efficient government that is beholden to the people. Reasons for instituting term limits include:
- Combating the Incumbent Advantage: Incumbents (current office holders) enjoy a massive advantage when it comes to elections. According to a Desert News report, legislators in Utah enjoy a 90% reelection rate. The rate is similar at the national level, where in addition to a high reelection rate they enjoy benefits such as money for free mail that can be used for campaigning. An example of such a case is Senator Orrin Hatch who served for over 30 years as Utah’s senator. Term limits will help combat this advantage by limiting the number of terms an incumbent could run for office and by allowing others to face off in elections devoid of incumbents.
- Promote a Citizen Focused Government: Term limits will promote a citizen focused government. Our current lack of term limits for many elected officials in Utah and at the national level encourage officials to focus on campaigning and their political careers instead of the people. Officials who are term limited and know when they will exist office will be more likely to listen to and respond to the needs and demands of citizens. These officials will not be consumed by the task of continually running for office or courting wealthy donors or groups to sponsor their campaign. Officials will be able to focus on the common good of the community instead of the good of the politician.
- Reduce the Influence of Special Interests and Lobbying: Elected officials should and must be accountable only to the voters. It is the responsibility of an elected official to represent their constituents instead of courting special interest and lobbying groups who can provide large donations in exchange for pushing a policy or an agenda. Money from special interests and lobbying groups typically go towards influencing those who are likely to win, which in our current system is the incumbent. The longer an elected official is in office, the stronger their ties to special interests and lobbyists become. Term limits will help decrease the influence of special interests and lobbyists on elected officials by reducing the number of incumbents and their chance to build these relationships.
- New Ideas and Faces: Term limits will also help to produce new ideas and increase turnover. By term limiting government officials, new government officials will be able to develop and try new ideas instead of being stuck in the mindset of “how things have always been done”. Term limits will also help to increase turnover by providing new officials. This will disrupt the seniority system and allow new individuals to assume positions of leadership and responsibility more quickly.
Term limits will help promote a limited system of government that will place the people before the politician. Utah must find a way to institute term limits for their elected state officials, US congressional representatives, and US senators. Government officials who are term-limited will be able to focus on the people and fulfilling the duties of their elected office instead preparing for the next campaign. Term limits will help to reduce corruption and the influence of special interest groups and lobbyists on elected officials.
Open and transparent elections are key to a successful and functioning democracy. Transparent elections allow voters to trust the outcomes of our election system. A crucial component of fair and transparent elections is campaign finance.
Campaign finance refers to the laws and rules that govern how a candidate can collect money and from whom. All fifty states recognize that being able to track and regulate how campaign donations happen is key to a healthy democracy. Each state mandates that candidates report their contributions and expenses while pursing office. Most states also limit how much an individual donor can give to a candidate based on the office they are seeking. These laws seek to allow candidates to raise the needed money for a race while trying to reduce any corruptive influences.
Campaign finance is less restrictive on a national level. Following the 2010 landmark Supreme Court case of Citizens United, unlimited outside spending was established as constitutionally protected free speech. The ruling allowed for a maximum of $5,200 donation directly to a candidate and unlimited contributions to super PACs (Political Action Committees). These PACs are able to spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates. Since this ruling, our national elections have been awash in cash from corporations, PACs, unions, and others. Often, these donations are anonymous and their contributions have affected and influenced elections throughout the United States.
Within Utah, campaign finance has taken a back seat. Our campaign finance laws are weak and rarely enforced. Like other states, all candidates and political parties are required to provide a record of donations and expenditures or risk being punished. However, these punishments are insignificant (typically a matter of paying a small fee) assuming there is punishment at all.
Additionally, most campaigns both in and outside Utah are a costly endeavour. It is typically only the wealthy or well-connected who can gather the needed funds to pursue public office. Those from poorer backgrounds or with limited funds find that they are unable to make a credible bid, even if they possess exceptional skill or ideas for serving in government. Utah must strengthen its campaign finance laws and encourage a level playing field for all candidates as well as reducing the influence of wealthy donors, special interest groups, and other organizations. It is the ordinary voter who should influence the outcome of an election and not money.
Utah should seek to promote campaign finance reform by:
- Increasing Transparency: Utah should continue to require a detailed report from all candidates, parties, PACs, and political organizations to be made publicly available at regular intervals. Additionally, the state should seek to conduct a randomized audit of these groups to encourage adherence to campaign laws and promote transparency.
- Public Financing: Utah should establish a mechanism that would allow more citizens to equally compete for public office by creating a system that would provide public funds to candidates who are willing to meet criteria established by the state to compete for office. This would help to encourage a broader demographic to participate in running for office in Utah. I would help to change the stereotype that public office in Utah is for old, white men.
- Enforcement: Utah should encourage adherence to state finance laws through rigorous enforcement. Punishment for violating laws should be increased. Additionally, a team for enforcement should be created within the elections office that is given the power to track and enforce state campaign finance laws.
The integrity of our campaigns and election systems is paramount. We need transparent and fair elections in Utah. Instituting stronger campaign finance laws in Utah will help to ensure that the public is aware of how money influences candidates and that voters can trust the results of Utah elections.