Commentary: The pricetag on U.S. elections

The Miami HeraldSeptember 2, 2010 

As a visitor from Germany, I find it astonishing that elections in this country can be decided by who is able to buy the most advertising time out of his own pocket. Seeing is believing, though. Florida's gubernatorial and U.S. Senate primary races leave the impression that public offices come with a price tag.

Experience? Brains? A good political idea? That is so yesterday. Today, it's all about money. Billionaire Jeff Greene's loss in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate showed that money isn't always the determining factor, but it sure helped Rick Scott in his victorious race for the GOP nomination for governor.

In Germany, by contrast, campaign spending is strictly regulated and ad time is allocated. Germany has some 15 parties running in every federal and statewide election -- although only five or six have a serious chance of winning seats in the various parliaments.

Before every general election, one can watch sometimes puzzling commercials by the Animal Protection Party, the spiritual Purple Party or the Family Party. The repetition of the big parties' ads is limited without making it impossible for them to get their messages across.

Television time is allocated on the basis of success in former elections. It is not purely socialist equality, but instead fathoming the interest of the public yet still giving new parties a chance to emerge.

Thus, it is impossible for big money candidates to use the overwhelming power of TV ads and rise out of nowhere solely on the basis of the candidate's wealth.

This regulation may make it harder for charismatic leaders like John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan to gain power in a quick ascent, but political talk shows still make it possible for the eloquent candidate to shine. The career path within the party also prevents politicians from catapulting into public office with no idea what politics are about. Better to have a bureaucrat with background and experience in the office than a polished know-nothing.

In Germany, election campaigns are also indirectly funded by the government. Parties receive a yearly sum, which makes up to 20 to 40 percent of their capital. Again, the success in former and upcoming elections is crucial in determining how much money a party will receive.

To read the complete column, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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