A Lost Opportunity for a More Accountable Election

When I traveled to Charleston earlier this month for just one meeting, I fully expected the trip would be brief.

But one brief meeting became no meeting at all when only one of the vital participants showed up.

Instead of witnessing an historic moment for West Virginia, I sat in a virtually empty room with Evan Jenkins, the challenger for West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, while his counterpart, Rep. Nick Rahall, was nowhere to be found.

I came to Charleston with the hope that I could help broker a negotiation and final agreement between Rahall and Jenkins to help stop the flood of outside spending that’s come to dominate their race –- and put forth a model for the rest of the country looking to restore more transparent and accountable elections.

But despite overtures from both candidates that they were ready for an agreement to curb the influence of outside spending – there was ultimately no meeting to broker: just me, Evan Jenkins and an empty chair.

At CounterPAC, an independent, nonpartisan advocate for free and fair elections I co-founded earlier this year, we had monitored the race between Rahall and Jenkins closely after first proposing that the candidates take a pledge to reject expenditures from secret, undisclosed donors.

Doing so would help facilitate a campaign about the candidates’ ideas, not about secret donations from groups who are ultimately unaccountable to the voters.

Following a proposal from Jenkins for the candidates to reject all outside spending, Rahall countered by proposing a pledge that banned expenditures from sources that don’t report their donors to the Federal Election Commission.

Like any normal negotiation, finalizing an agreement would require both parties to come to the table –- so CounterPAC announced a meeting and gave the candidates fair warning.

It was time to transition from rhetoric to action – but clearly Rahall felt more comfortable playing politics with an agreement than actually delivering on one.

In recent years, a tremendous surge in campaign spending from untraceable donors, front groups and shell corporations has eroded our democracy.

More and more, voters are recognizing the problem. Few issues cut across the spectrum of partisan politics as cleanly as voters’ desire for stemming the tide of secret spending.

A recent poll of more than 600 likely voters in West Virginia found over 80 percent of voters think secret spending should be limited. The same poll found that almost 60 percent of voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports limiting spending on political ads by secret, untraceable donors.

With a long, uphill battle toward real legislative change that would reform our nation’s broken campaign finance laws, reasonable politicians should be able to come together to agree to reject a system in which dark money and unaccountable donors saturate our airwaves and eliminate intelligent debate.

Because Rahall refused to ultimately finalize an agreement, there will be no relief for voters from the onslaught of ads. Outside groups receiving money from untraceable sources have already spent more than $2 million on the Rahall/Jenkins race alone.

If this election holds true to form, the final month will account for roughly another $2 million. As the final ads from outsiders looking to profit from their chosen politicians’ influence hit the airwaves, many voters in West Virginia will likely find themselves wishing for a reprieve.

They should know they were just one empty chair away.

This post was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail