Understanding the electoral system
When it comes to money and the 2012 American Presidential Elections, the sky appears to be the limit. Its estimated price tag sits at a whopping $6 billion, entering the ranks of major world events such as the 2012 Olympics, which had a budget o f $14.6 billion.
A key influence on American election spending is attributable to the rise of ‘Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) – political action groups facilitated by a Supreme Court decision called Citizens United, that ruled for corporations’ and unions’ free speech rights. This allowed for their unlimited campaign spending independent of individual candidates or political parties.
But do Super PACs have a negative effect on voters and how do electoral rules influence and apply to such issues? To explore these issues, an Electoral Regulation Research Network has been established at the University of Melbourne, a collaboration between Melbourne Law School, the New South Wales Electoral Commission and the Victorian Electoral Commission. The Network appears to be an international first with no comparable institution in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom or the United States.
“One of the network’s purposes is to look at international examples and learn from other jurisdictions. Many lessons – good or bad – can be drawn, especially where the nations are roughly comparable like the US, UK and Canada,” says Network Director Associate Professor Joo-Cheong Tham.
“I am hopeful the network can broaden people’s horizons and deepen their understanding of our own electoral systems,” he says.
To achieve its goals of providing regular forums for policy and scholarly discussion, and encouraging research collaboration, the network will hold regular events and publish a working paper series.
Some of its events will examine electoral practices in other democracies. Earlier this year, it held a joint seminar with the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies that considered financing of American elections, and whether Citizens United is the only reason for the rise of Super PACs.
In November, there will be another joint seminar with the Centre that examines the relationship between elections and human rights in the United Kingdom and Europe more generally. The network also aims to promote greater public understanding and debate surrounding electoral politics.
Dr Aaron Martin, lecturer in the University’s School of Political and Social Sciences and Editor of ERRN’s working paper series thinks electoral issues are not widely understood by the Australian public, mainly because of the success of our electoral system.
“If you look at the most recent election and how close that was, there was almost no question of the integrity of the election process. Whereas with the elections in America in 2000 for example, there were and still are a great many questions about electoral integrity.”
Many of the Network’s events seek to bring together diverse perspectives from parliamentarians, political parties, electoral commissions and academics.
For instance, a recent symposium co-organised with the Australian Electoral Commission tackled the topic of ‘The Challenge of Youth Electoral Participation’ by having the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, on a panel with Dr Aaron Martin, Greens MP Adam Bandt, ALP MP Jane Garrett, National Party Senator Bridgette McKenzie, and representatives from the Australian Electoral Commission and the Victorian Electoral Commission
“Young people’s engagement with the electoral process is declining,” says Dr Martin.
“Young people are becoming less likely to join political parties and be involved in electoral forms of participation, but at the same time they are becoming more likely to engage in non-electoral forms of participation, like signing petitions and participating in demonstrations.
“It should be concerning that young people are becoming more disengaged from the electoral process because electoral politics is the most important channel through which their voices can be heard. Part of it may have to do with young people no longer seeing voting as a duty.”
According to Dr Martin, civic education plays a large role in engaging young people in electoral politics, and we should improve our civic education program so that people are actually aware of the effect of policy on their lives.
He also says another part of the solution could be through politicians’ efforts in mobilising young people, which had some success when Barack Obama embedded that strategy in his election campaign in 2008.
Associate Professor Tham says the ERRN has significant potential to enliven and enrich Australian policy and scholarship in the field of electoral regulation, thus enhancing the quality of the nation’s democracy.