The Free Press, Mankato, MN


September 4, 2013

People lose link to democracy

Why It Matters: Representative democracy suffers when voters have little access to their elected leaders.

Two recent reports should concern anyone who still believes average citizens can influence their government and political leaders.

One report showed that for the first time in Minnesota history, spending by outside groups such as political parties and political action committees outpaced spending by the candidates themselves in Minnesota legislative races.

The other report noted that members of Congress have significantly cut back on their town hall meetings for fear they will be hijacked by special interest groups that show up en masse as part of a plan to embarrass a candidate and divert the attention of the meeting.

Taken together, the reports suggest that representative democracy is being undermined by special interests, further distancing elected representatives from their constituents.

The details are unsettling. The Star Tribune reported that the cost of campaigning for House or Senate seats in Minnesota has nearly doubled in just 10 years. The newspaper’s research showed that spending for the average House race went from $50,000 to $91,000 from 2002 to 2012 and for a Senate race, the spending went from an average of $78,000 to $171,000, a 120 percent increase.

In one key race for a Senate district where 50,000 votes were cast, DFL candidate Melisa Franzen and Republican Rep. Keith Downey each spent about $110,000 on the race. But outside groups spent about $300,000 to defeat Downey, while the groups spent about $150,000 against Franzen, the newspaper reported.

Another report Monday in the Star Tribune detailed the decline of the typical town hall meeting among Minnesota’s members of Congress. Candidates’ representatives say they choose other means of meeting constituents in lieu of the open town hall meetings that can be subject to a “takeover” by interest groups bused in to create embarrassing confrontations with elected representatives on video that may be put on the Internet and go viral.

The representatives cite meetings with groups of citizens at the State Fair, for example, as places where they can meet constituents face to face. Others conduct more controlled town hall meetings via teleconference call where they can screen those who get to ask questions.

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