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And the Power of the Ballot

 By Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford
 Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page C07
 Washington Post
 When we ran against each other in 1976, the modern
 campaign finance system was in its infancy; it was the
 first presidential election governed by strict limits
 and public financing. Looking back, it is easy to
 recognize why the reforms of the 1970s were so
 essential. Today it is disheartening to witness changes
 that have distorted those reforms and shaken Americans'
 faith in their democracy.
 We have watched as elections have grown more
 controversial, more expensive, riddled with soft money
 and less understandable to the average voter. We have
 watched as participation in presidential elections has
 declined -- plummeting during the last election to the
 lowest levels since 1924.
 Less than half of the voting-age population cast their
 ballots for president in 1996, and while there are many
 factors that might contribute to this disturbing figure,
 we believe that a lack of public trust in government and
 in our system of democratic elections is a major part of
 the problem. When people feel disenfranchised from their
 political system, they stop participating in it. And
 when that happens, democracy suffers.
 We have both worked in our public lives toward the goal
 of exporting our democratic system to other nations. Our
 model (or "the U.S. model") must be fundamentally
 reformed in terms of campaign financing to warrant the
 faith of other countries.
 We can both personally attest that there is no greater
 honor than to serve your country. Yet the honor of
 public service is being tarnished by a system of
 campaign funding that has made many Americans lose faith
 in the concept of public service as a virtue. That
 service is diminished when elected officials are forced
 to spend so much time raising money instead of focusing
 on the many important issues they were elected to
 We firmly believe that now is the time to restore
 Americans' faith in their democracy, their government
 and their democratically elected institutions.
 Meaningful, bipartisan campaign finance reform is needed
 to rein in a system that is out of control.
 As a minimal first step, Congress and the president
 should approve legislation that bans soft money,
 enhances enforcement of existing campaign finance laws
 and creates a more accountable disclosure system that
 informs rather than obfuscates. These are the areas
 identified by former vice president Walter Mondale and
 former senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker in their effort to
 promote reform. It is particularly important to seize
 this opportunity for reform now so it can improve the
 next presidential election.
 In order to accomplish this goal, both parties must lay
 down their partisanship and rise to meet this challenge
 together. Leaders of both parties have demonstrated
 their ability to work together on critical and
 contentious issues to do what is right for the country.
 This is another such issue where cooperation is the only
 road to results. It is impossible to expect one side to
 disarm unilaterally in this massive arms race for funds.
 Rather, both sides must agree that bilateral limits are
 the only rational course of action to preserve the moral
 integrity of our electoral system.
 One item that we should all agree on is a ban of
 so-called "soft money" for national parties and their
 campaign committees. Soft money was initially intended
 exclusively for "party building" activities but has
 metamorphosed into a huge supplemental source of cash
 for campaigns and candidates. It is one of the most
 corrupting influences in modern elections because there
 is no limit on the size of donations -- thus giving
 disproportionate influence to those with the deepest
 According to the Federal Elections Commission, both
 parties raised a record-breaking $262 million in soft
 money during the 1996 elections. Recent news reports
 showed that figure will be shattered again in 2000 if
 current fund-raising rates continue.
 These figures make it absolutely clear what is at stake.
 If Congress does not act now to stem this massive flow
 of soft money, Americans' cynicism and mistrust of
 government will only increase. And that step is only the
 beginning of needed fundamental reform.
 We must demonstrate that a government of the people, by
 the people and for the people is not a thing of the
 past. We must redouble our efforts to assure voters that
 public policy is determined by the checks on their
 ballots rather than the checks from powerful interests.
 Jimmy Carter was president from 1977 to 1981. Gerald
 Ford was president from 1974 to 1977.