This Editorial originally provided by USA Today

December 12, 2007

Our view on elections: 5 reasons for public financing

States, cities lead with clean-money alternative to a seamy system.

The election year hasn't even begun, but the nation's political system is already awash in record amounts of money, much of it spent to buy influence.

In other times, this would have evoked outrage. But candidates have grown so dependent on the money that all but a few stand mute afraid to push the obvious remedy, public financing of elections. So perhaps it's worth pausing to note some of the reasons that the idea makes sense, even if it's getting no attention from the major presidential contenders. Here are five:

* Wretched excess. Candidates, the two major parties and the nominally "independent" groups allied with them are on track to raise and spend $5 billion or more in the 2008 campaign, far more than ever before. In Iowa alone, it's projected that Democrats will spend the equivalent of $300 a vote for each caucus participant who turns out on Jan. 3. That kind of money doesn't come just from upright civic-minded citizens.

* Wealth test. Both parties acknowledge that in recruiting candidates for congressional races, a major criterion is whether the prospect is rich enough to personally finance a campaign. That smells of reserving public office for the elite.

* Dialing for dollars. Members of Congress complain repeatedly that running for re-election is so costly that they have to spend up to one-third of their time "dialing for dollars." For challengers, it's worse.

* Fat cats. Despite all the stories about an Internet-powered rise in small contributors, just 21% of all presidential campaign contributions have been in donations of $200 or less, little change from previous years. Meanwhile, contributions are up 91% from donors linked to the securities and investment industries, 68% from the entertainment industry, and 47% from drug makers.

* Shady bundlers.  The power of "bundlers," power brokers who aggregate individual donations into giant packages, continues to grow. Hillary Clinton has been embarrassed twice by such operators, one indicted on business fraud charges.

There is an alternative already adopted by seven states. It's called clean elections, or clean-money campaigning. Pioneered in Maine a decade ago, it lets candidates accept public financing in return for a promise not to take private contributions beyond a required threshold sum of small donations.

The result is more time for candidates to talk with the voters; more women, minorities and middle-class candidates seeking office; and fewer campaign-finance transactions that look like thinly disguised bribes.

Clean election systems cost from $2 to $6 per year for each voting-age resident, a bargain for trimming costly special-interest influence. In North Carolina, for example, the clean-election option has virtually ended an outrageous special-interest bidding war for seats on the state's top courts.

But in Washington, a clean-election plan for Congress is buried (Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich are the only presidential candidates listed as sponsors), and the presidential campaign fund is woefully outdated.

As in state and local politics across the country, reform will only happen when citizens demand it. What's missing is a high-profile champion willing to lead the charge.


Voter-Owned Elections

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