State Campaign Finance Reform is Key to Changing Politics

The presidential campaign has entered its post-Labor Day stretch. Given the prospect of a Gush or Bore victory, does anyone really expect significant campaign finance reform to pass Congress and be signed by the new president? Where will concerned and angry citizens go in 2001, once genuine reform is stalled in Congress and we are left watching sham legislation be heralded as a solution?

To the states, where people always go, to their state government, or, if they are fortunate to have initiative or referendum processes, to the ballot with a campaign finance reform issue. Federal proposals "don't even come close to what people are willing to do in the states," notes Donna Edwards, director of the Center for a New Democracy.

There is partial or full public financing of some or all statewide and legislative campaigns in 24 states, though only Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin provide direct public funding to all candidates. Some funding is weak. Almost all favors incumbents and the two-party system.

Maine leads the nation, voters having passed the Maine Clean Elections Act in November 1996. The act provides voluntary public financing to candidates for state office who agree to limit spending and refuse private contributions. It is the model for other states.

This year citizens in Oregon and Missouri will consider the "Oregon Political Accountability Act" and Proposition B, submitted by Missouri Voters for Fair Elections, respectively. The initiatives would establish public campaign finance systems for candidates running for legislative or statewide offices. In Oregon, the state treasury would fund campaigns; in Missouri funding would come from an increase in the corporate franchise tax for companies worth more than $2 million. Oregon's initiative also limits the length of campaigns.

Both measures have broad organizational support from local, statewide, and national non-profit, service, labor, and good government organizations.

After a spate of ballot measures in 1996 and 1998, there are only two this year. Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, believes, "There is a lot of hoopla about this issue but people are waiting to see what happens with Congress -- if the Democrats take back the House -- before moving forward."

Is public financing the best way to go? It is not the only way. Activists and reformers looking to bring reform to state level and local elections will benefit from reading Money and Politics: Financing our Elections Democratically, by David Donnelly, Janice Fine, and Ellen S. Miller. Donnelly managed the Maine campaign, assisted by Fine, a Ph.D candidate in political science, and Miller, director of Public Campaign.

What type of reform, though? Donnelly and his colleagues are right: "The most direct and corrosive aspect of our political system [is] the special-interest financing of our elected officials." Any proposal that doesn't change this system is inadequate. In Money and Politics, published by Beacon Press (91 pages plus notes, $11), a politician (Senator Russell Feingold), and representatives of labor, citizens, public interest, and activist organizations, and academicians, argue for various types of reform. All strategies do something, but reformers must be going for the jugular, choking special interest money from the electoral system.

"From top to bottom, the whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, laborers and Capitalists alike and all of us are consenting parties to it," Gore Vidal quotes Henry Adams in the book's forward. Citizens need to be asking "what do we do after we pass these reforms?" for as Ralph Nader is warning us, we need to commit ourselves to a "deep democracy" that involves us beyond candidates and past elections. The history of reform is that the "reformed" come back with new ways to assert their power. We are a generation past the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms now, to what avail? In Alaska, California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, governors, legislators, and courts have weakened, or are maneuvering to weaken, existing statutes.

Campaign finance reform starts us toward democracy. Increasing the size of the electorate is crucial to achieving change. Like Nader -- and Jesse Ventura -- we have to advocate for election day registration. Longer voting hours -- a weekend, a holiday; shorter campaigns; free and reduced advertising on our airwaves; requiring five minute, minimum commercials (Eugene McCarthy long ago noted nothing of substance can be said in less time), and Ross Perot's e-voting need to be enacted, in some form. A separate issue is proportional representation, which every democracy in Europe save Britain uses in some form.

One additional issue is key, and that is the US Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Court equating spending with free speech, making it a protected First Amendment right. That is bad law, made by partisan judges appointed by politicians in support of the two-party system. To its everlasting shame, the ACLU has embraced this interpretation. Members need to work through their state ACLU chapters to get the national organization to reverse its position. This is the opposite argument to the "everyone is free to sleep under a bridge, but poor people are more likely to make use of the opportunity." Overturning Buckley is not the most important thing, but in the long run it is needed. Democratic and Republican justices alike voted for it, underscoring the insular palm greasing of the two party system.

The system is broken and lifetime commitments by citizens are needed to fix it. As Donnelly et al. write, "The real scandal is the legal stuff." Money now swamps our elected representatives. Money and Politics pinpoints the source: "A small number of wealthy individuals and powerful organizations that are subject to government regulation and taxation." It is getting worse with every election.

Citizens need to buy Money and Politics, connect with organizations, locally, in their state, on the internet, and get involved. The only cure for a corrupt democracy is more democracy: in the trench efforts to change the rules and elect representatives who believe in the people, not profits. It will not be easy to reduce the influence of private wealth. It is also absolutely necessary if our democratic republic is to survive.

There are many websites by activist, academic, think tank, foundation, and citizens' organizations providing information on campaign finance reform. The Progressive Populist's website ( offers many links for getting started. See also Public Campaign (, phone 202-293-0222), the Initiative and Referendum Institute (, phone 202-429-5539) and Common Cause (; phone 202-833-1200).

Ken Jerome-Stern is a writer in Minneapolis.

See also Granny D Back on the Road

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