Candidates in Maine are playing on a level playing field. That's one of the conclusions issued as part of a study of the state's clean elections law by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices in April.
The 126-page report said that the law, which has been in operation for four election years has "proven itself to be a viable option for (legislative) candidates who would prefer not to finance their campaigns through private contributions or believe that the (law) offers other advantages."
The report confirms what supporters of public financing have known for a long time -- that private money helps close the door on choice, giving entrenched interests far too great a say in who gets elected to public office and, therefore, far too great a say in the kinds of laws that are written and passed.
Simply put: Money buys access and influence.
"Candidates bow down to big contributors, often with bad results for the general public when those candidates win," the Boston Globe wrote in an April editorial.
As an example, the Globe offers the recent Supreme Court ruling forcing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.
"Candidate George Bush promised in 2000 to have the EPA do just that -- and the voters were pleased," the Globe said. "But President Bush reversed himself a year later, putting such emissions off-limits for the EPA. Big oil and other corporate interests, which had contributed heavily to Bush's campaign, were more than pleased by the change; they took it to the bank. Six years were lost in the fight against global warming."
That's why we need clean elections.
Clean elections legislation -- or public financing -- is designed to take the private money out of the system by creating a pool of money and distributing it to candidates who qualify by meeting both ballot access requirements and by raising a minimum number of small contributions ($5 or $10), usually from voters in the candidates' districts. They also must agree not to take any private money and to abide by campaign spending limits. Other rules -- such as a leveling clause that grants clean candidates additional cash should they face off against a privately funded candidate or are targeted by independent groups.
In addition to Maine, Arizona, Vermont and North Carolina are among the states with partial clean elections programs and New Jersey has reauthorized and expanded its pilot program.
Federal legislation also is on the table -- introduced in the Senate by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and in the House by Reps. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
That's why the timing of the Maine report is important. According to the report, the Maine law "has encouraged more people to seek office and boosted the number of challengers who take on incumbents," helping to control "direct spending by legislative candidates."
The report says that 349 legislative candidates sought office during the 10 years prior to the law taking effect. "That number jumped to 391 candidates in 2004 and to 386 in 2006, as public financing became more popular," the Portland Press Herald wrote.
In addition, the report said that the program "encourage(ed) first-time candidates to run for political office, including more women candidates"; leveled the playing field for challengers running against incumbents; offered more choices to voters; and "allow(ed) participating candidates to spend more time communicating with voters by eliminating private fundraising."
One flaw in the Maine program, however is that "political action committees and political parties are spending more to help or hurt candidates" pushing the cost of campaigns up despite the existence of a law designed to reduce it -- a problem the commission said could be addressed by tightening limits on so-called independent expenditures.
The increasing costs were jumped on by opponents -- House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy, R-Newport, told the Portland Press Herald that clean elections have proven to be "extraordinarily expensive" and not what voters signed up for when they approved the program in 1996.
This criticism misses the point. The goal of public financing is not just to reduce costs. Privately financed campaigns already cost the public -- in pay-to-play contracts, corruption, access to legislators, and loss of trust in government. Public financing breaks this connection, while also increasing participation.
It has the potential to return ownership of our election system and our government back to the people.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog, Channel Surfing, is at www.kaletblog.com.
Subscribe to The Progressive Populist