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Clean Elections: antidote to unhealthy campaign financing.

These days you need a score card to keep track of congressional money in politics scandals.

First and foremost, there is Rep. Tom DeLay (R TX), who resigned from office following his indictment on money laundering charges in Texas and the exposure of his many ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Then there is former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R CA), who exited Capitol Hill after he was convicted for taking bribes from defense contractors. Don't forget Rep. Alan Mollohan (D WV), who is under investigation for steering earmarks toward companies and nonprofits that gave money to his favorite charity. There is also Rep. William Jefferson (D LA), under investigation on bribery charges with $90,000 stashed in his freezer. And, we can't neglect Rep. Bob Ney (R OH) whose name keeps turning up as Abramoff associates one by one are convicted for various crimes.

Take a deep breath. All is not lost. Scandals of this magnitude create opportunities for major reform. The Watergate break-in helped inspire the 1974 campaign finance laws, establishing contribution limits and the partial public funding system for presidential campaigns. The implosion of Enron aided passage of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), eliminating massive soft money contributions to federal party committees. Scandal creates the political will to get things done.

If there were ever a time to push hard for passage of Clean Elections, the public financing of elections, it is now. Clean Elections is already the law in seven states and two municipalities. Unlike other campaign finance reforms that typically seek to close loopholes through which special interest money makes its way into candidates' coffers, Clean Elections changes the way elections are financed. Candidates who qualify by raising a specified number of small contributions, typically five dollars, receive a grant of public money to run their campaigns. In exchange, they promise to take no more private money and abide by strict spending limits. Clean Elections levels the playing field so that qualified people who otherwise would not run for office can run competitive campaigns.

What does any of this have to do with DeLay, Cunningham, Jefferson and company? Imagine this: What if House or Senate candidates had a source of disinterested money to run their campaigns? What if they didn't have to rely on the likes of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to organize fundraisers and funnel cash their way? What if lawmakers could spend their time talking with constituents instead of well-heeled donors? Clean Elections would not cure every problem ailing the body politic, but it would certainly help.

Publicly financed elections is a popular reform. According to a recent bipartisan poll conducted by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, three out of four voters support publicly funded campaigns. This support crosses party lines and is strong across demographic, gender and regional groups. A full 82 percent of 1,000 likely 2006 voters surveyed said they believe it is likely that, as a result of publicly financed elections, candidates will win on their ideas, not because of the money they raise. Eighty-one percent believe it is likely that politicians will be more accountable to voters instead of large campaign contributors.

Seize the Moment

Taking advantage of this moment of opportunity, the Public Campaign Action Fund has launched a campaign, "Seizing the Moment." One major prong of the campaign is a pledge drive designed to put candidates for public office on record on the issue of reform. In early July, several likeminded groups sent out letters to more than 1,000 congressional candidates asking them to sign a three-part pledge to support public financing and new disclosure restrictions on lobbyists' influence on members of Congress.

In the meantime, some members of Congress are already working on legislation to establish full public financing of congressional elections. In the House, Reps. John Tierney (D MA) and Raul M. Grijalva (D AZ) have introduced H.R. 3099, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act, which has drawn the support of 38 cosponsors. At this writing, a similar bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate.

States Lead the Way

While national scandals may provide fertile ground for reform, the best advertisements for Clean Elections at the national level are the seven states and two cities that have already established publicly financed elections. Their successes demonstrate that public financing of elections is a practical, proven reform.

Arizona and Maine have offered full public financing of statewide and legislative races since the 2000 election cycle. In both states, there is strong candidate participation--78 percent of the current Maine legislature ran using the system, as did 58 percent of the Arizona House and 23 percent of the Arizona Senate. Both states have seen increased candidate participation and competition as well as more diversity in elected legislators and officials.

In both states, officials note that recent prescription drug reforms would have been tough to accomplish under the old pay-to-play system. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) credited Clean Elections when she signed an executive order creating a discount prescription drug program. "If I had not run clean, I would surely have been paid visits by numerous campaign contributors representing pharmaceutical interests and the like, urging me either to shelve that idea or to create it in their image," she said in a 2003 speech. "All the while, they would be wielding the implied threat to yank their support and shop for an opponent in four years."

In 2005, the state of Connecticut and Albuquerque, NM, and Portland, OR, established full public financing of elections. In Connecticut, a Democratic state legislature and Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell, worked together with grassroots activists to establish full public financing for statewide and legislative races. This is the first time that legislators and a governor have approved Clean Elections for their own races. In Albuquerque, 69 percent of voting citizens supported a referendum to establish a public financing system for all citywide offices. The Portland City Council approved a Voter Owned Elections system, the first time a city council has done this for its own offices. The Portland League of Women Voters played an active role in this campaign.

On May 17, 2006, in the first primary elections held under Portland's Voter Owned Elections law, publicly funded candidate Erik Sten (the author of Portland's law) won his race for City Council. According to Friends of Voter Owned Elections, the new law helped make Portland elections fair, open and accountable with a more level playing field, less campaign spending, reduced influence of special interests and new options for genuine participation in politics by typical residents from nearly all city neighborhoods. "Everyday Portlanders can be genuinely involved because of Voter-Owned Elections since a $5 contribution counts the same from a working Portlander as from somebody making $500,000 a year," says Jo Ann Bowman, associate director of Oregon Action.

New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont have Clean Elections systems for some races. This year, for the first time in New Mexico three candidates with full public funding are running for the Public Regulatory Commission which regulates public utilities, telecommunications companies and insurance companies. North Carolina's judicial public financing program proved popular in the 2004 elections, with 12 participants out of the 16 judicial candidates. The North Carolina legislature is considering a bill to establish a pilot program for public financing in four districts. In Vermont, the system that provides public funding for gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates is not in wide use because of legal attacks. While the Supreme Court recently overruled Vermont's campaign spending and contribution limits in Randall v. Sorrell, the public financing portion of the law remains intact.

Meanwhile, in California, Proposition 89, to establish full public financing for statewide and legislative elections qualified for the November 2006 ballot. The California Nurses Association led a pledge drive, collecting some 620,000 Californians' signatures, and a growing coalition, including the California League of Women Voters, has endorsed this Clean Money Initiative. Many other states, including Florida, New York, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington and Wyoming, have seen action in recent state legislative sessions.

It's time to join citizens nationwide and push for publicly financed elections for Congress and in the state and localities where you live. The money in politics scandals keep coming. Seize the moment and demand public financing for our elections. After all, elections should be about voters--not special interest donors.



Nick Nyhart is executive director of Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to reducing the role of big special interest money in American politics.
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Author:Nyhart, Nick
Publication:National Voter
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Previous Article:Protecting the Voter.
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