This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

February 17, 2005

Dan Kurland

Bill would curb influence of election contributors

In the 2004 West Virginia legislative elections, House candidates raised, on average, more than $15,000 each. Senate candidates (larger districts) raised more than $65,000.

Between the primaries and general election, the average candidate for the Senate awoke each morning contemplating raising more than $500 a day. Winning candidates, of course, raised more. You can easily guess how they spent their days — and with whom.

There’s democracy, and then there’s politics. Democracy is about “one person, one vote” — about “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Politics is about power and money. It is where an organized minority is a political majority. And it is where corporate power and money influence democracy.

Costly advertising in the past election marked a troubling highpoint in the perversion of West Virginia politics. Which brings us to recent efforts to return elections to a purer form.

The movement is variously labeled “clean elections” (as opposed to money-driven elections), “public financing of elections” (to highlight the key administrative provision), or “voter-owned elections” (to emphasize the degree to which a more democratic element is present).

A bill before the Legislature is a test run limited to three House seats and two Senate seats. If passed, it would give candidates limited state campaign funding, provided they (1) demonstrate initial public support and (2) reject all other private contributions. Companion legislation addresses limiting group advocacy spending (PACs and 527s).

The “clean elections” bill requires House candidates to prove political viability by collecting signatures and $5 contributions from 75 registered voters. Senate candidates would need similar contributions from 200 registered voters. House candidates would then receive $7,500 in public funding, and Senate candidates $20,000. Candidates could receive up to three times that amount if outspent by an opposing non-publicly funded candidate.

The program is entirely voluntary. Candidates could opt to raise money in the usual manner, and receive no state contribution.

The bill accomplishes two basic objectives:

First, it significantly reduces time and energy spent on political fundraising, and the obligations and alliances that result from those efforts. As a result, candidates can be more concerned with reaching out to voters. Campaigns can be more issue-focused. Moneyed interests would have less sway.

Second, the new legislation enables some candidates who cannot raise large sums to participate in the election process. Having good ideas can have as much political capital as having lots of money.

Are there legitimate concerns with the proposal? Of course. But we should not be misled by false issues.

If someone can’t raise money the traditional way, you say, they shouldn’t run. If large contributions represented broad support, that might be true. But a rich campaign war chest is now more often a sign of approval by powerful interests.

Should Kanawha taxpayers fund an election in Pocahontas County? Two points need be made here. First, a legislator from Pocahontas will vote in the Legislature, which affects all West Virginians. All West Virginians have a stake in elections focusing on the issues, and on a Legislature representing the broadest of concerns within the state.

Should the taxes of citizens go to fund elections? They already do. True, this is the first time taxes would directly subsidize campaigns, but is that necessarily bad? As individuals, we have a stake in the candidate of our choosing. As citizens of the state, we have a stake in the broadest and fairest election possible.

Finally, some issues have yet to be resolved. That is the point of the demonstration project.

The qualifying contribution regulations must be low enough to encourage broad participation, yet high enough to attest to a degree of seriousness of intent. Rather than requiring a set number of donations, it might make more sense to stipulate contributions from a certain percent of the voting population. And the procedures for selecting districts in the demonstration have to be fully worked out.

This clean money/clean elections system currently is in place in Maine and Arizona. This past election in Maine, 83 percent of the state senate (29 out of 35) and 77 percent of the House (116 out of 151) will be made up of legislators who ran “clean.” And they were not fringe candidates. Among Democrats, 15 incoming senators and 70 incoming house members ran “clean”; among Republicans, 14 incoming senators, and 42 incoming house members ran “clean.”

In Arizona, 58 percent of the members of the Arizona house (35 of 60) and 23 percent of the state senate (7 of 30) ran “clean.” Ten of Arizona’s statewide elected officials, including its governor, attorney general and treasurer, will be serving free of dependence on private campaign contributors.

West Virginia now has the opportunity to put such a system to the test, an opportunity to restore democratic principles in politics. The Legislature should move forward with that process.

Kurland is health action coordinator of Covenant House and creator of the Web site

Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246