An election without lies is not an election at all; such is common opinion among Americans. Little has been made of the idea, but why not force politicians to be responsible for their honesty legally?
Candidates are competing products, and we, voting consumers, have to decide which to endorse and buy. For traditional products, truth-in-advertising laws make certain that what is promised through advertisements holds true in practice, but citizens aren’t protected from lies and inaccuracies in candidates’ platforms.
That is, in most states we aren’t. There are a handful of states that have tried truth-in-platform laws for elected candidates, though they have mostly failed. Minnesota had its own version, but it proved ineffective because its broad language required that to be guilty, the accused had to explicitly know that his statements were false.
Also crippling the purpose of such laws is that often public reaction cannot be dissuaded by legal proceedings in time to justly affect an election. That is, many of the most important political advertisements are run weeks or even days before an election, leaving little time for our slow-moving legal system to show the truth.
The state of Ohio tried its own approach to the burgeoning danger of false political ads, with a nonpartisan Elections Commission whose purpose was to investigate falsehoods in the political realm quickly enough to be effective. Reportedly, the seven-member panel investigated some 30 to 40 complaints every year with little controversy. But in 1998, on the grandest stage of its short history, the Elections Commission proved legally impotent, though technically functioning.
That year, republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft ran a television advertisement with fabrications about his democratic opponent Lee Fisher. Taft claimed that the Ohio police supported him, mostly because Fisher, who was the state’s attorney general, had cut police employment.
In fact, the Fraternal Order of Police was split on the election, and Fisher actually increased the number of crime investigators over his term.
Quickly, the Elections Commission decided that Taft had broken Ohio’s political fallacy law, but Taft’s only punishment was some unfavorable publicity and a letter of reprimand from the commission. Without any power to levy fines and the lies deemed not libelous enough to be passed onto a prosecutor, the Elections Commission had little else to do. Taft went on to win the gubernatorial election and is still governor.
Moreover, there are no federal laws forbidding lies of candidates, nor is there any audible desire from Washington to do so. In fact, the Federal Communications Act requires that if a broadcaster allows a commercial from one candidate, it must allow any others from competing candidates, all without censorship.
A notable case occurred during the 1970s when an Atlanta station was forced to show an ad paid by the campaign of an admitted white racist. The NAACP objected to the ad, in which the candidate used racial slurs and accused African-Americans of “stealing” white women. Unfortunately, the First Amendment and the Federal Communications Act gave the NAACP little hope of keeping the commercial from running.
Therein lies the reason why there is little hope to ever control statements by candidates: free speech. With a basis of fact spun correctly, a candidate can completely distort the truth without necessarily lying. Behold the power of legal gray area.
The only hope of controlling the duplicity of today’s politics is a national bipartisan elections committee with the purpose of prosecuting political groups and candidates who lie to the public. Such a group, which would have to involve so many different organizations and so much money, is an idea unlikely to interest many politicians.
It seems impossible to hold a political conversation without complaining about elected officials’ lies, and perhaps for good reason. But with a system that so rarely punishes dishonesty, and usually rewards it, why would any smart politician not engage in deceit?
Therefore, the voting public has the enormous responsibility to decide what is true and what is false, perhaps a huge reason why the country is increasingly polarized. As our population continues to split politically, nonpartisan political research groups like FactCheck.org become more and more important.
However, no matter how well versed the voting base becomes, without a governing body endowed with the power of the legal system and the speed and specified agenda of the Ohio Election Committee, politicians will continue to exercise their most valuable right – the right to deceive the American people.
Christopher George Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.