WV Clean Elections Article by Carol Warren
Carol Warren works for the
Wheeling-Charleston Catholic Diocese, the Office of Peace and Justice
February 25, 2005
The Road to Clean Elections
The road to Clean Elections is by no means a high-speed freeway, but little-by-little, this much needed legislation is gaining respect and scrutiny of the West Virginia legislature. And why shouldn't it? Elected officials currently have to spend a huge proportion of their time raising campaign contributions. This voluntary option will not only free them to spend more time talking to their constituents about important issues, but also can help restore integrity to the political process.
Some may argue that in these times of budgetary shortfalls, the state can't afford to finance political campaigns. But as taxpayers, we are already paying considerable sums of money in concessions to the special interests who now fund political campaigns. In 2000, fewer than ½ of 1% of all West Virginians contributed to legislative races. Not surprisingly, few regular folks are benefiting from many policies that are being enacted.
Catholic social teaching has long stated that every person has the right and the responsibility to participate in the political process - regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or economic status. Yet under our current funding system it is increasingly difficult for an ordinary citizen to be successfully involved in politics, either to be elected to public office or to be heard above the interests that finance campaigns. As a result, many issues essential to the public good take a back seat to issues important to big donors.
Running for political office in West Virginia is fast becoming an exclusive domain of the wealthy who can afford to spend substantial sums on self-promotion, or for those who have access to monied special interests. Analysis by the People's Election Reform Coalition (PERC) reveals that contributions to candidates from themselves and family members continue to be the biggest source of funding for campaigns, accounting for 22% of all identified contributions to legislative candidates during the 2002 primary. And in the vast majority of races, the candidate who raises and spends the most money wins the election. PERC's figures for the 2000 election showed that 85% of contested seats for the state legislature (64 out of 75) were won by the top fundraisers in their district.
Clean Elections is absolutely not "welfare for politicians." To qualify for public funding, candidates must demonstrate public support by collecting a certain number of signatures along with $5 contributions from registered voters in their district. The show of public support required will weed out so-called "fringe candidates." A candidate will have to stand for something positive to attract voter support.
And public funding has been proven to work. Maine, a state very similar in size and resources to West Virginia, and Arizona became the first two states to implement this system, which has been a clear success. Clean Election reforms freed candidates from fundraising and allowed them to run more issue-oriented campaigns. There is greater financial equality among candidates. Electoral competition and voter choice have increased. In Maine and Arizona, it is now the political norm to run for office free from direct dependence on private campaign contributions. In Arizona, nine out of eleven statewide elected officials, including the governor, secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer, ran "clean." Maine's legislature is now made up of 80% Clean Elections candidates.
Undoubtedly, a major hurdle for passing a Clean Elections law will be finding a stable funding mechanism. The legislative interim committee studying the Clean Elections Act received a report from a Charleston-based law firm on potential sources of funding for public financing. This analysis identified sources outside of general revenue accounts. The Reform Institute, a Washington, DC based educational organization working on campaign finance and election reform issues, commissioned the study. Hopefully lawmakers will take a closer look at this analysis as they consider the Campaign Finance Reform Act during the regular session.
The interim committee has recently been looking at a Pilot Project to fund three House and two Senate races in the next one or two election cycles, at a cost of about $375,000. The seats to receive the funding would be chosen by lottery or in another impartial manner from the open seats around the state. Targeting open seats for the Pilot Project eliminates the problem of an incumbent who might feel uncertain about the new system or unwilling to change his funding mechanism.
Free and open elections are a public good and indeed, the bedrock of our democracy. This concern for participation and leveling the electoral playing field has caused the West Virginia Council of Churches to name Clean Elections as a top legislative priority for the organization. To provide some sort of government funding for candidates reduces the possibility of corruption, reduces the amount of time a candidate spends raising private funds, and diminishes the role that special interests have in determining public policy. It increases the likelihood that legislators can listen to their constituents and pursue the common good. With these benefits, it is easy to justify the small amount that a public funding system would cost relative to current spending measures. The amount of money required for a Clean Elections system may seem high, but when the total cost is broken down per average taxpayer, it costs less than $5 a year - an amount I suspect most of us would be willing to pay.