How to Fix American Government and Revive Democracy

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Public Financing of Elections4

Even if wealth and income remains very unequal in the United States, there are several other reforms that would help to ensure that wealthy interests do not dominate in the political system. One is to erect barriers between private power and public power – barriers that make it difficult for financial advantages to be translated into political advantages. One area where this is absolutely essential is in elections. As documented in another article, well-off individuals and organizations are now able to use their financial clout to determine who runs for office and who has the best chance to win.

In the last 30 years, many campaign finance reform measures have been adopted. We now limit the size of individual donations and PAC donations, for instance. And more recently, unlimited “soft money” donations were banned. But none of these reforms have done much to stem the tide of private special interest money into campaigns. Private money behaves like water – if you damn it up in one place, it eventually just finds its way around the barrier and into the election process. Soft money, for example, has merely been reincarnated in the form of so-called “527” groups, which pour millions into campaign ads. And in 2010 the Supreme Court struck down the longstanding ban on corporations spending directly on political campaigns, which will leave them free to spend unlimited sums defeating candidates they oppose.

This situation has led many campaign finance reform advocates to argue that the only real solution to this problem is to get private money entirely out of campaigns. They are advocating public financing of elections, so that candidates will not be dependent at all on special interest money. Sometimes called “Clean Elections,” this system works in the following way. To qualify for public money, candidates must collect a number of small ($5-$10) donations from citizens – say 100 of these donations for a run at a state legislative seat. Candidates then agree to not raise or spend any private money in their campaigns. All qualified candidates then receive the same amount of public funds to run their campaign. A key provision is that if a rival candidate then spends large amounts of private money to defeat a publicly financed candidate, the latter would receive more public funds to keep them competitive.

Publicly financed campaigns are the best way to short-circuit the influence of private money in elections. They ensure that candidates are being responsive to their constituents, not to the special interest money they need to win office. And this system is not that expensive. It is estimated that all political campaigns in the United States could be publicly financed for about $10 from every citizen – a small price to pay to reclaim the democratic nature of elections.

Maine citizens used an initiative to pass a “Clean Elections Law” in 1996 and it has been a resounding success. By 2005, 83% of the State Senate and 77% of the State House were made up of legislators who ran “clean” campaigns. And this system now has broad support from candidates of all parties. Here are just a few of the endorsements by current legislators:

“I decided to use Clean Elections because I philosophically believe in not having private funding as a big part of our election process. I want to be beholden to the people who elected me, not special interests.”

Sen. Beth Edmonds, (D) Freeport

“Clean Elections has been great for democracy in Maine. It allows any individual with community support to run for office, it has increased voter choice, and increased competition while at the same time leveling the playing field for all candidates.”

Rep. Chris Rector, (R) Thomaston

Public financing not only has the advantage of lessening the political advantages that affluent interests have in elections, it also reduces their leverage in the lobbying process. Politicians who are less dependent on special interest money are also less likely to feel that they have to pay more attention to special interest lobbies. As one Maine lawmaker put it: “As a Clean Elections legislator, I find myself being lobbied a lot less than traditional candidates. It is a lot easier if someone’s trying to pressure you to say, ‘I owe my allegiance to the taxpayers of the State of Maine, and not to any special interest group.’”

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