States Struggle With Public Funding of Elections

Reformers looking for ways to cut out big-money contributors from political campaigns may find some challenges in pushing public financing of elections.

The handful of states experimenting with "clean elections" are facing nearly as many legal battles as contestants lining up for the dough.

At issue are concerns over free speech, voter will, and the fair distribution of public money.

Of particular concern is the ability of candidates to run a viable campaign. Some critics say candidates who decide to run on public money may find it difficult to mount challenges against entrenched incumbents. At the same time, candidates who run on their own cash may find the limits on campaign donations "unfeasible to run a campaign."

"The devil is in the details," said Frederick Herrmann, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission in New Jersey, where a movement is afoot to bring "clean election" laws to the state. "As a concept, the commission has always supported state financing of elections. But how do you set it up?"

Hermann may want to check out systems currently on the books in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Arizona and Kentucky, where candidates receive their campaign financing entirely from the state coffers and are banned from accepting any private donations — even from a candidate's own bank account.

In those states, candidates must raise a set amount of qualifying funds by soliciting $5 donations from individual constituents within their district. When the candidate has raised the qualifying amount, proving his or her commitment to running a clean campaign, those funds are turned over to the state, which then funds the campaign based on the average cost of running for that same office in the previous election cycle.

In Maine, where clean elections were pioneered in 1996, currently one-half of the state Senate and 30 percent of the state House was elected without private money.

Arizona saw its number of contested races jump from 51 in 1996 to 82 in 2000, when one-third of legislative candidates ran under the "clean" banner. The increase in competition, attributed to the funding of candidates who could not otherwise afford to run, is cited by proponents as a reason why states should have clean elections.

"In a democracy, you want a debate," said David Donnelly, director of the Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections.

But clean elections are facing a round of problems. For one, the free money is encouraging parties to slate candidates in races where they have no chance of winning, eating away at the public purse.

Another problem is the possible misuse of funds. Two losing Senate candidates in Maine are currently under investigation of that allegation.

One clean money candidate, Republican state Sen. Peter Mills, said he is concerned that Maine's gubernatorial race could be sucked dry of cash if the money falls into the hands of fringe candidates who will abuse the funds.

On the other hand, he said, the process of cobbling $5 donations into a qualifying fund did "act as an effective filter to keep every stray cat out of the race."

Mills added that the notion that equal amounts of dollars creating an equal playing field is flawed since challengers need to raise more cash to run an even campaign against a better-known incumbent.

"As an incumbent, I managed to do it on a $15,000 budget (of public financing)," Mills explained. But now that he's planning a run for the House, where he'll be a newcomer in a new district with just a $5,000 allotment, "I don't know if I'm going to be able to do it."

In fact, some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Right to Life Committee, are so opposed to clean money campaigns, they filed losing lawsuits arguing First Amendment violations. 

"There are variations on these programs and Maine pushes the envelope," said Mark Lopez, a staff attorney with the ACLU who handled the suit. "In practice, it coerces candidates to participate in the program by imposing penalties on candidates who exercise their constitutional right to stay outside the (clean election) system."

In Massachusetts, the legislature has repealed a 1998 voter referendum in which 67 percent supported clean elections. Supporters of the repeal say the $23 million set aside to fund the campaign is too costly, even though the statute guarantees that the pricetag for clean elections is not more than one tenth of one percent of the state budget.

Gov. Jane Swift is expected to veto the legislation, but the legal troubles are expected to continue. In the midst of it all, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday in favor of candidates who qualified for clean money funding but have yet to receive the cash.

In New Jersey, estimates put the cost of public campaign financing at about $78 million, a considerable amount in a state facing a severe fiscal crisis.  Lawmakers are unlikely to support a bill to enact clean elections — New Jersey does not permit ballot referenda — but supporters aren't giving up hope.

"These people are our employees and they don't act like that," said Stuart Shaw, a Fairlawn, N.J., resident who kicked off a clean election initiative Friday by dispatching a group of activists to the offices of every state senator and assembly person to hand out copies of the Maine law.