As the cost of running for office skyrockets, candidates spend more of their time dialing for dollars and less of their time talking to potential voters. With so much money in play, it's hard to resist the conclusion that our democracy is for sale. In 2005, candidates running for Seattle City Council raised an average of $250,000 and those running this year are on pace to raise that much or more before November. After raising so much money, elected officials may feel more beholden to the people who wrote them large checks than to the people who voted for them. There are many highly qualified people who might run for office, but must work to support themselves and a family plus raise money to get their message out. The concept of grass roots campaigning in large geographic or population areas has become almost impossible. Krista Camenzind, with Washington Public Campaigns discussed successful efforts in Maine and Arizona to implement campaign finance reform. Joining her was to be Casey Corr, former writer for the Seattle Times, who was to talk about his experience running for Seattle City Council (and the difficulties of raising $232,000) in 2005. At the last minute Casey wasn’t able to attend, but his excellent article written for Crosscut is still available on line.
Krista Camenzind volunteers for Washington Public Campaigns, a statewide organization, affiliated with a national movement to create legislation that will enable a publicly funded candidate to compete with candidates who are well funded. On a state level, both Maine and Arizona have passed legislation, which offers a campaign financing reform process that is completely voluntary. It allows candidates who don’t want to engage in the race to raise money a better chance of competing. Simply, the reform gives candidates a choice of whether to take a pledge of accepting no more than $5.00 donations per individual and not using private money or raising money in the traditional way. If they choose the voluntary reform process and get a sufficient quota of $5.00 donations they then become eligible for public funding up to a specific limit. The size or population of their district would determine the quota they must achieve and the amount they receive. Since the reform offers a choice, incumbents who prefer the traditional system aren’t affected in any way and can raise money in compliance with existing laws. But, of course, they receive no public funding. The reform movement uses the word “clean elections” to infer the candidate uses clean money that comes with no strings or obligations to any lobbyist or any specific constituency or corporation. Washington Public Campaigns (http://www.washclean.org) needs volunteers; money and your support to wrestle our government back from special interests. Contact their web site for how you can help. It’s as easy as signing a petition to show your interest, giving money or your time. Those present at this meeting voted to give support and endorse Washington Public Campaigns efforts to reform election funding.
Within 50 states and thousands of cities, election laws differ. Each may well prepare legislation that suits their needs. Maine passed a full funding option in 1996 and Arizona passed a similar funding option in 1998. Both have found it highly successful although small tweaks might be necessary to address some unanticipated circumstances. In 2004 77% of Maine’s House and 83% of their Senate races were elected using only clean money. The elected office holders were from both parties and were about evenly split. Washington Public Campaigns is a nonprofit organization formed to carry the message that we can change how campaigns are run, and they have brought that message to our legislature. So far Washington State Legislature has not passed enabling legislation. Washington Public Campaigns is currently circulating a citizen’s petition that will tell to our legislators that the people are enthusiastic about reform. They hope to gather 20,000 signatures by Labor Day. They may at some future date move forward with a State Initiative if the legislature drags its feet too long. Washington Public Campaigns has supported and will support three bills in the state legislature: 1) a local option bill that would allow local jurisdictions to implement a system of publicly financed campaigns if they choose, 2) a judicial bill that would stem the flood flowing into Supreme Court races, and 3) a statewide bill that would introduce a new system of publicly financed campaigns along the model of Maine and Arizona. There is currently a federal campaign finance reform bill before the US Congress. In the Senate it’s called the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 936) and in the House it’s called the clean Money Clean elections Act (H.R. 1614).
HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST?
For statewide reform, no one can predict an exact amount at this point in time because it would be impossible to know how many candidates would choose the program and how many would continue with the traditional election system of raising money. But based on what was spent in Washington State in 2004, $3.36 per state resident every year would be enough to pay for all statewide races. It is considered a small price to pay for not having special interest groups control who is elected in the State. A distinct advantage of the reform is that candidates will be able to spend less time dialing for dollars and more time talking directly with their prospective constituents. One of the great challenges to the first time candidate when facing an incumbent is doing the research on all the current issues. Since they do not have a staff to prepare briefing books it is very difficult to learn the job and spend half of each day on the phone raising money, in addition to earning a living if they are not independently wealthy.
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS?
There were a number of very pointed questions from the audience asking questions about very specific details of how the system will work. The only answers that could be given were how Maine and Arizona have dealt with those issues. Washington’s legislature hasn’t yet passed any legislation, so a specific answer is impossible. For example, Maine and Arizona have modified their initial legislation to make the dispersal of funds more timely. When the system was first instituted, traditionally funded candidates would spend big money for last minute TV or other media advertising and the publicly funded candidate didn’t have the funds to respond. Maine and Arizona responded to this problem and made it possible for candidates to receive funds quickly, especially in the last days of a campaign. There are, and will be, other details that must be written into new legislation to cover other issues.
WILL CLEAN ELECTIONS DISRUPT THE PARTY SYSTEM?
Currently there are individuals in both parties who believe the partisan party structure will be weakened if election reform is realized. Because both parties have access to public funds, and because there is no obligation to join the program, the objection may be due to not wanting any change at all to a system that has had an iron grip on all political activity. While the strong two party system has served America for may years, there are those who believe that both dominant parties have become increasingly polarized and don’t represent mainstream American ideology well. Since election reform is party-neutral, it would appear that party opposition would reflect that the political party is more interested in retaining its power than encouraging the best, most qualified candidates to run for office.
WHERE WILL MAJOR RESISTANCE COME FROM?
There appears little doubt that professional lobbyists, and the interests they represent, will do everything possible to prevent clean election reform from occurring. The legislators they have funded most heavily will no doubt be leading the resistance to campaign reform. Whether it be Microsoft, medical high tech companies, Boeing, road builders, realtors, insurance companies, developers, Master builders, attorneys or hundreds of other smaller businesses, they all have a vested interest in using their influence to control legislation. Some have speculated that the auto industry could have lowered emissions and improved gas mileage decades ago had the industry not prevented more stringent regulation.
In a country where all too few people even vote, and average citizens have come to believe that they are so disenfranchised that it is pointless to participate in the democracy that define our lives, it’s hard to be critical of any honest attempt to improve our election systems. We sometimes complain about those we elect, but feel changing the system impossible. Washington Public Campaigns is a small nonprofit organization with no apparent agenda other than bringing clean government to the people. They face an uphill battle trying to change a political system and structure that has evolved into a governmental system that represents corporations and wealth more than the vast body of Americans who are more interested in their families and survival in a changing world. What makes the concept of Clean Elections so brilliant is that it doesn’t force those who like the traditional fund raising systems to change. It is free choice. The only potential downside will come in two basic areas. One is the details of the actual legislation. The opposition will likely make every attempt to weaken it, as they are now methodically doing in Washington State’s excellent public disclosure laws. The other problem to work out is the possible need to vastly improve our campaign monitoring ability. Fund raising and tracking of campaign money and expenditures will require far more sophistication in monitoring. Computer data management and accounting systems will likely need to be brought to a much higher level to prevent cheating. We don’t yet know, for example, exactly how in-kind donations will be handled. Let’s imagine that a candidate, regardless of whether they choose traditional funding or public funding, cheats. Let’s further speculate that the cheating isn’t discovered until well after the vote and the cheater holds office. How will we deal with the penalty? Will the cheater be removed from office? Will the cheater be given a minor fine? Will the runner-up win? Will the penalty be severe? Will the cheater be required to pay back the money? Will the political majority be able to pardon the culprit or wave the penalty? Whatever the penalty it needs to be effective enough to make compliance with the law effective. Washington Public Campaigns is a true grass roots effort to change the process of funding elections and improving the chances of under funded, but qualified candidates to run for office. Give them your support. Consider signing up on their web site now. It also wouldn’t hurt to call those who provide your news and tell them to stop making judgments on the quality of candidates by how much money they have raised.
Seattle Neighborhood Coalition