This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

March 21, 2007

Richie Robb and Carol Warren

Campaign cash: Public financing works in other states

Déjà vu hardly describes it. For the second year in a row, the Public Campaign Financing Act (SB118) was inexplicably killed in the Senate Finance Committee. Despite many specific promises to coalition members and even to other legislators, Sen. Walt Helmick has once again denied a committee vote on the bill.

Why are a few of our top Senate leaders so reluctant to try a more democratic election process? They have run unopposed in a number of races for decades, and the amount of campaign money that gravitates to their powerful positions has rendered any opposition virtually impossible to finance. Surely they are not afraid to run on their records against a contender who could run a viable, publicly financed campaign?

Evidence from the states of Maine and Arizona suggests they need not be wary. Incumbents have the name recognition and a record of public service that continues to attract voters in the majority of cases, even when publicly financed candidates oppose them. And if an incumbent chooses to run as a publicly financed candidate, the public seems to acknowledge and reward that. Only incumbent legislators with whom the public has reason to be displeased should feel any apprehension.

The legislators in Maine and Arizona seem as happy with the system as the voters. Eighty-three percent of Maine’s Senate and 77 percent of the House chose to run as publicly financed candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Legislators in that state say that running with public financing has become the norm. The number of publicly financed candidates elected in Arizona climbs during each election cycle as well.

And why would our Senate leaders choose to ignore the efforts of a coalition as broad and deep as the one supporting public campaign financing? The coalition includes the League of Women Voters, AARP, Citizen Action Group, the West Virginia Council of Churches, AFL-CIO, West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, among others. Are the special-interest funders privately suggesting that legislators oppose the bill?

The experiences of Maine and Arizona also show that public financing increases not only the number and diversity of candidates for office, but also increases citizen involvement. Under the current proposal, West Virginia candidates could not qualify for public financing without collecting between one and four hundred small, $5 contributions from registered voters in their district. These voters become part of the process, and are more likely to become educated about the issues facing the Legislature.

Less than 1 percent of West Virginians contributed to any candidate’s political campaign during the 2004 election cycle. Yet it is common knowledge that more money is spent on campaigns every election cycle. If the money to finance those campaigns is not coming from citizen supporters, where is it coming from? Who is it coming from?

Having candidates who are out knocking on doors, seeking support, and talking with constituents about their concerns can only help the democratic process and re-engage West Virginians. Public participation is the key to healthy democracy. We hope to encourage our legislative leaders to be more open to increasing that participation through public financing of elections by time for the 2008 legislative session.

Robb is mayor of South Charleston. Warren is with Citizens for Clean Elections.


Voter-Owned Elections

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