This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

January 10, 2007

The Rev. Dennis Sparks

A true 'freedom bill': Public financing act will ensure voters are heard

During the run-up to last November’s election, it was impossible to miss the pervasive presence of money in politics. Details of special interests vying to affect the outcome of our elections here in West Virginia were an almost daily news event. And even financial support of a less insidious nature continues to increase, as campaigns spend more and more with each election cycle.

Why should concerned citizens care about the amount of money our politicians raise and spend? The national campaign reform organization Public Campaign has calculated that the candidate who spends the most money wins over 90 percent of the time. That is an appalling statistic when one considers its implications for our democracy.

Right now in West Virginia we have a remarkable opportunity to move in another direction. We began in 2006 when our West Virginia Legislature adopted an excellent piece of legislation to regulate the activity of 527 organizations, requiring these organizations to disclose their identity and funding sources. We can continue on that path with the Public Campaign Financing Act. I often call it the true “freedom bill” because through the passage of this bill, we increase the opportunity for our citizens to trust our government and provide that our elected officials can earnestly listen to their constituency and vote their conscience.

The funding system is totally voluntary — no candidate is required to participate. 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. Qualifying candidates receive an amount of money sufficient to run a viable campaign. There are clear-cut and stringent guidelines as to how the public money can be spent, and violating the law can lead to prosecution.

Public funding has been proven to work. Maine 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, and the overall amount of campaign spending is decreasing. Electoral competition and voter choice have increased. A much more diverse group of legislators is being elected. After the 2004 election, Maine’s Senate is now made up of 83 percent Clean Elections candidates, with 77 percent in the House.

Free and open elections are a public good and indeed, the bedrock of our democracy. To provide public 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. People who could make excellent legislators, but could not dream of financing their own campaign, can run and win. The time is right for our state to become a leader in ensuring that the voices of all West Virginians will be heard in choosing our public policies.

Sparks is executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches.

Voter-Owned Elections

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