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Serge Melki // CC BY 2.0

There is one thing that the Nominations and Elections Committee of Penn Student Government gets very right. If you want to run for Class Board or the Undergraduate Assembly, the NEC stipulates that no candidate can spend over $50 on their campaign. This ensures that elections are not about who has the most resources to disseminate their ideas, but the ideas themselves.

If the NEC can try to run a fair election, why can’t the United States federal government?

The 2018 midterm election season has been the most expensive in history. By July, candidates and groups had spent $1.6 billion.  

The problem? Not every candidate has an equal share of that pot. Not by a long shot.

Our very own Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is up for re-election in November, but not to worry, he has almost $17 million jettisoning him into first place. By the end of June, his campaign had already spent nearly $12 million painting his face onto your screens and etching his name into your hearts.

His Republican challenger, Lou Barletta, raised just over a third of Casey’s war chest and spent less than half.

And in many Senate and House races that are neck-and-neck in the polls, we see competing candidates raising similar amounts of money.

When did our democracy start to favor those who could scream the loudest, not who could represent us best?

For the primaries, the influence of money was even more pernicious. The thing Washington forgets is that the best candidates aren’t always those that can afford to make it known.

Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial primary saw one challenger to incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey’s campaign. Ducey spent $1.7 million, while his poor challenger spent only $55,060. No matter their platforms, democracy would have given them equal opportunities to make their pleas.

We don’t have free and fair elections.

A fair election is one where all candidates are given an equal chance to make their cases.

A fair election is one where voters read five flyers for five candidates, not two shiny posters and three scraps of paper.

Credit: Sammie Yoon

A fair election looks like one in New Zealand, where statutes strictly limit advertising spending to around $17,000 for candidates, $200,000 for outside organizations, and $700,000 for parties. And this money must be spent within a firm three-month window before the election. (Maybe the New Zealand Electoral Commission was inspired by the NEC)?

Yes, of course, the Supreme Court must overturn Citizens United v. FEC. And, yes, Congress needs to do something more with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) and the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) than make alphabet soup. This is all very frustratingly obvious.

But the big boys in Washington aren’t going to “Trojan Horse” their own empire just yet, no matter how much they claim to be purveyors of democracy. So it’s in our hands, folks.

While Washington sorts out its glitches, the list of which seems to be growing by the day, it’s up to us to nurse our democracy.

By definition, those we elect to represent us must, well … represent us. So let’s give ourselves the fairest shot at filling Capitol Hill with, well … ourselves. Hopefully, your primary election vote was carefully researched, and you picked your favorite candidate for their policies.

For the general, we’ll have to take a little more responsibility. It’s time to take off our red hats and blue pins and give each candidate a fair shot. And fair means fair. No more voting based on who Joe Biden endorsed. No more voting based on candidates’ likability. No more voting based on what money, recognition, incumbency — or all of the above — could’ve bought them. Vote based on their proposals. Vote based on whether their opinions align with yours. That’s it.

Tune out commercials that attack opposing candidates. Don’t validate their wallets. Instead, search for your representatives’ policies, beliefs, and values. Read about their proposed legislation. If you’re voting in a competitive district with more moderate candidates, don’t be afraid to cross partisan lines. Vote for whomever has your vision of a better United States.

Make Congress great again. Make the legislature a representative sample of the U.S. population. Lower the U.S. government’s margin of error in representing us.

Elections won’t be fair until Washington acts (whenever that may be). But, civic duty has always been a strong force for democracy. Don’t vote this November — unless you’ve given each candidate a fair chance. Don’t vote this November — unless you’ve picked the right one. Don’t vote this November until you know, engage, and decide.

LUCY HU is a College junior from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is lucyhu@sas.upenn.edu.

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