making local government more ethical

The Appropriateness of Business and Union Gifts to Government

It is a given (although not a fact) that everyone wants to make it as easy as possible to vote. Voting is the principal way most people participate in a democracy, and choosing our local officials is the way we determine the direction and quality of management of our community. In most countries, voting day is a day off, but this is not true for most people in the U.S. So it is important to find other ways of making voting easier for people with full-time jobs.

Recently, more thought has been given to this. But making it easier to vote usually costs money, and this has been a principal objection especially from those most concerned with government spending. Most of these same people are very supportive of public-private partnerships, so that the world of commerce pays for and runs more government operations.

According to an article yesterday in the Indianapolis Star, these two issues have collided in Marion County, home of Indianapolis. Democrats favor two satellite sites for early voting (in addition to the City-County Building), but the Republicans have opposed doing this on grounds of cost. So the Democrats took a feather from the Republican cap and had a local auto workers union offer $50,000 to pay for the satellite sites.

I oppose the acceptance of gifts to local governments from any company or union that does business with or seeks benefits from the local government. But these are common. It does not appear that the auto workers union does business with Marion County, but it clearly supports Democratic candidates. So the one area where it is involved is the one area it wants to support with a gift.

But what if it were the local chamber of commerce? Their members do business with local government and seek benefits from it as well. And yet local governments often allow the local chamber to sponsor local government events, including election-oriented events, and make gifts to local government programs.

According to the article, the county's Republican Party chair is quoted as saying that "it would be inappropriate for a partisan special interest group to fund any part of an election process," comparing the arrangement to "a law firm sponsoring a court."

But law firms do business before a court and have a direct interest in swaying judges' decisions in favor of their clients (and, with decisions favoring their clients, getting themselves more clients). But what would a union get out of two satellite sites? If it wanted its members to vote, it could make this easier by providing forms as well as transportation to the City-County Building.

The benefit to the union from satellite sites is indirect and completely political:  the easier it is for people to vote, the more poor people will vote, and most of them will vote the same way the union leans. The benefit to Republicans from opposing satellite sites is the same:  the harder it is for people to vote, the fewer poor people will vote, and therefore a higher percentage of voters will vote Republican.

Even though the union would presumably have no role in deciding where the sites would be located, how they would be operated, or who would operate them, and it is hard to imagine that those who operated them would feel obliged to the union for paying for the sites, it still seems inappropriate. But is it any more inappropriate than a contractor paying for a ball field or a business organization sponsoring a debate, complete with meals for candidates and the usual back-slapping that surrounds such an event?

I don't feel that individuals, businesses, or partisan organizations with lots of money to spend should either make or directly support government decisions, use gifts to local governments to improve their reputation locally, or get directly involved in the mechanics of elections. Nor do I feel that a party should depart from its position on this issue when the other party chooses to use its own MO for a cause it opposes.

In any event, it doesn't appear that this is anything more than a ploy to show that Republicans aren't really opposing satellite sites on grounds of their cost, but rather on grounds that they oppose making it easier for the poor to vote. So it is unlikely that the issue raised here will get much of a hearing or have any effect on policies regarding gifts to local governments.

For more on this topic, see:
Gifts to Local Governments
When Municipal Governments Depend on Businesses

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics