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The February 16th indictments of 13 Russian nationals for running a covert operation against U.S. elections is welcome news. Such attempted foreign influence is a frontal assault on our democracy, undercutting our aspirations for democratic self-government.

Improving Public Election Information

This is not to say that our own U.S. government hasn’t been guilty of the same elsewhere. According to a study by political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University, the U.S. has interfered in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000 alone; during that same period, the Russians (and former Soviets) interfered in 36.

Illicit statecraft on the part of the U.S. and other nations goes back decades if not centuries. But that shouldn’t condone it when done in our name, especially when it conflicts with our stated values. As we aspire to democratic ideals at home, we need to reflect upon our de-stabilizing role abroad, and the inevitable blowback that results.

Self-defense

But we also need to defend ourselves here and now, as every year there are elections in the U.S. on some level. The expansive indictments against Russian nationals are an important first step, creating a potential deterrent by laying out what kind of future foreign interference will be prosecuted (for U.S. citizens, the shoe has yet to drop on how potential domestic collaborateurs may be charged, but these indictments may be laying the foundation for just that).

For the Russian nationals, even if they are never extradited by the Russian Federation, their ability to travel internationally will be greatly restricted, because countries with whom the U.S. has mutual extradition treaties could send them to the U.S. if those Russians try to enter those countries.

At the same time, these indictments can’t address the root of the problem - i.e. the degree that foreign information influence operations are able to be successful in the first place, because they exploit shortcomings in our current political system.

One reason disinformation campaigns can have influence in the U.S., is because voters often lack sufficient real information about the choices before them.

One reason disinformation campaigns can have influence in the U.S., is because voters often lack sufficient real information about the choices before them.

In our unregulated ‘Wild West’ campaign finance system - owing in large part to Supreme Court rulings that equate money with free speech and corporations with people - most candidate information comes from campaigns that can afford expensive partisan mailers and TV ads. Aside from this, there is limited media coverage for state and federal elections, other than for U.S. Senate, President and Governor; and even that is often sensationalist ‘horse-race’ coverage, and not based on actual public policy differences.

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The result is that many voters have limited information about their choices, making them more vulnerable to false information when exposed to it.

The Public’s Right to Know

Here in California we could decide that this is a voters rights issue, by dedicating part of the public airwaves and the official voter information guides to provide all voters with a baseline of information about all the choices before them:

  • For coverage of statewide candidates and ballot measures, provide free TV time on the California Channel (California’s own version of C-SPAN) for all ballot-qualified candidates who accept voluntary spending limits. Expand the California Channel to two channels if needed.
  • For coverage of state and Congressional legislative seats, provide free TV time on California Channel and on Governmental channels included as part of local cable franchise agreements, under the Federal Public, Educational, and Governmental Access Channels ("PEG Channels") set-aside under Section 611 of the Federal Communications Act.
  • Include in this time direct statements from candidates, as well as candidate forums, debates, and other interactive programming.
  • To insulate this free TV time from the politics of the budget process, establish a dedicated, ongoing funding stream that is independent of the governor and state legislature.
  • Provide full and free candidate statements in the official state and county Voter Information Guides for all ballot-qualified candidates who accept voluntary spending limits, instead of today’s ‘pay-to-play’ system charging exorbitant prices for the statements, which results in voters only hearing from candidates who can raise the most money.

Doing all of this would be a giant first step for Californians’ right to know - and is something doable here in California - if the in-state political will is there. Once implemented, it could prove a positive example for the rest of the nation.

Could California go even further with free media? Unfortunately Federal law prevents requiring free TV time from the major networks, which would reach even more people.

In 1996, Congress and the Clinton Administration gave away the rights to our public airwaves to broadcast digital television - a conveyance then worth at least $70 billion - to existing broadcasters in exchange for nothing, as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. If lawmakers at that time were concerned about the public’s right to know, they would have required that substantive free time be set aside in the Act for programming to inform the public about its election choices. But they didn’t.

Despite this, California could still go a long way today using our in-state cable options to provide this free tv time to better inform the public.

While too late to fully ramp this up for 2018, there is no reason that such a system could not be in place in California for 2020.

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If we are worried about disinformation, why not provide more real information? Surely our democracy is worth it.

Michael Feinstein
2018 candidate for California Secretary of State