Monday, March 26, 2007

A Chance For Fair Elections

David Donnelly and Joan Mandle

March 26, 2007

David Donnelly is the National Campaigns Director of Public Campaign Action Fund. Joan Mandle is the Executive Director of Democracy Matters, and is the chair of the Public Campaign board of directors.

Last November, voters delivered an unmistakable mandate to Congress: Deal with the corruption and ethics scandals. The House and Senate both passed ethics and lobbying reforms as good first steps, but left untouched the broken campaign finance system that shuts out ordinary voters.

Into this vacuum stepped Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Reps. John Tierney, D-Mass., Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Todd Platts, R-Pa.

On Tuesday, Senators Durbin and Specter introduced the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act to level the financial playing field for all Senate candidates, and to get candidates off the never-ending fundraising treadmill. (At the same time, the House members filed similar legislation—the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act.)

The importance of this bipartisan legislation is underscored by the number of organizations that immediately got behind it. In addition to reform organizations, endorsers of the Fair Elections Now Act ranged from unions to business leaders, environmental groups to church-based organizations. With a combined membership of 60 million Americans, the coalition assembled is unlike any other federal effort on campaign finance reform. This reform effort is fundamentally different from those of the past.

Today, there is broad recognition that the current funding system is both unfair and unsustainable. Unfair because the few people in the country who can make sizable campaign donations get to influence our politicians and the political agenda in ways that ordinary citizens can’t hope to do. Unsustainable because campaign costs continue to soar. In 2002, the average winning candidate for Senate spent $5.4 million. Last fall, the average winner spent $9.7 million, an 80 percent increase. As the price tag on campaigns goes up, so does the time spent by members of Congress raising that money as well as the number of citizens who can no longer afford to run for office.

Furthermore, the scandals of Abramoff, DeLay, Cunningham and related outrages reveal that the system of private funding amounts to money scandals just waiting to happen. It adds up to a public that is shut out and turned off from politics awash with money.

This reform effort is also different because of the Fair Elections policy itself. Based on successful laws in Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and elsewhere, the proposal turns the current system on its head. Recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that a tiny fraction of Americans truly matter in financing elections: just one-quarter of one percent of all Americans make a donation of $200 or more to a federal candidate. Instead of depending on the narrow slice of America who can afford to make a large donation, the bill requires that participating candidates raise a large number of small donations from people back home. Importantly, after qualifying through these small donations, candidates agree to limit their spending to what they receive from a public fund.

In Arizona and Maine, similar clean elections laws have breathed new life into politics. Eighty-four percent of Maine state legislators were elected under the system. In Arizona, nine of the 11 statewide elected officials—including the governor—were elected without raising special-interest money. Candidates are no longer dependent on private money from wealthy special interests. Instead, they can focus on the needs of their constituents.

A broad and diverse set of groups and individuals support fair elections because it expands who can actively participate in politics, and deepens democracy by offering a workable alternative to the current unfair funding system. For a full list of endorsers of the Senate bill, visit Senator Durbin’s website.

We know that it will take a huge outpouring of citizen pressure to pass this legislation. Only organized, sustained citizen pressure can successfully make the case that the time has come for real change in campaign funding. National organizations and individuals are gearing up to tell their elected officials that they want to take back democracy from the special interests. Public Campaign has already launched a “Citizen Co-Sponsor” petition. Democracy Matters is organizing students on campuses to build support for fair elections. And many of the endorsing groups are planning a national day of action in the fall.

Because our democracy belongs to all of us—not just to elected officials, wealthy donors and lobbyists—it is all of America that must fight for it.

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