How to Hold Elected Officials Accountable

(Editor's note: This is an edited version of a letter Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman recently sent to Center supporters.)

Good news. You got mail today, and it's not a request to fund someone's political campaign.

It's not just the frequency and intensity of political appeals that make them so wearisome at this time of year. It's also that most of us might be hard-pressed to name any kind of giving that brings us less satisfaction.

Why is that? I believe it's because campaign gifts seem to do little to hold a candidate accountable once elected. Most other kinds of giving connect the expectations of the giver to the performance of the recipient.

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For example, charities are legally required to use your targeted gifts for the purposes you specify. Drop some dollars in the offering plate and while you might still hear a sermon that makes you uncomfortable, it's usually in line with the church's mission. Give a few bucks to help a friend out of a jam and he probably won't blow it at the casino or on a new toy. (And if he does, you both know that was the last time you'll help him.)

In charitable giving, a reasonable satisfaction with the outcome is the rule, not the exception. But far too often in political giving, it's the other way around. It's as if donors' standards are lower when it comes to the results of their political giving.

Certainly there are serious problems with accepting a donation in exchange for a specific vote. But many times the candidate's appeal is a version of "Give to me so I can beat the other guy," or "You wouldn't want the other guy to win because he's a lot worse than I am."

You wouldn't give to a charity whose pitch was "We're not as bad as some of the others," would you?

Still, most politicians and their fundraising consultants are not dummies. Of course they'll focus on winning when donors are more adamant about electoral victories than better public policies.

And when a donor does expect the candidate to uphold certain principles once in office, the well-rehearsed response is something like, "Well, first I have to get elected; I can't do anything if the other guy wins."

That may be true, but it's kind of like a charity saying, "We'll use your donation to hire the right employees, but we certainly can't guarantee what they'll do on the job!"

Candidates can do better — and they will — if donors set higher standards and engage at a higher level. Too much political giving values party and personality over principles. This should be reversed.

When political giving is based on principles and coupled with post-election accountability, political fundraising and the behavior of elected officials will change.

I would never argue that citizens should stop giving to their preferred candidates. Far from it. More people should donate, and restrictions on giving should be relaxed to encourage maximum participation and the easy entry of political challengers.

But everyone who gives to a candidate should also look for ways to hold him or her accountable. That means more than reading the candidate's literature, which tends to gloss over legislative votes the folks back home won't like. It means getting information from independent sources, such as the Mackinac Center.

We believe so strongly in accountability that we've built the absolute best record of legislative actions, including every vote of every lawmaker: We've launched a news service that reaches tens of thousands of people: Michigan Capitol Confidential. We don't tell readers how they should vote; we tell them how their elected representatives did vote.

Lawmakers read Capitol Confidential because their constituents and donors do. They feel the heat when we expose government mischief and wrongdoing: A legislative staffer resigned in the fallout from our investigation into a state film subsidy deal. His former boss then lost his primary election bid this year. The governor feels the heat when we unearth video of her boasting about working with a labor union to dragoon 40,000 home-based day care providers into a public-sector union.

Election Day is less than three weeks away. and Michigan Capitol Confidential can help you decide which candidates are worthy of your support.


Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.