'Clean money' Campaign Financing Needed to Restore Faith in Elections
November's special election was a turning point for Californians who realize that the corrupting influence of huge sums of money in our election system threatens the democratic process. According to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 70 percent of the respondents believed that special-interest groups control the political decisions made in California. Only 24 percent of the respondents trusted their government officials to represent their interests.
Fundraising for elections has become a scandal. Candidates must raise ever larger sums of money. Well-heeled donors contribute large amounts of money to state officials when bills related to their interests are considered. Various laws enacted over the years to control fundraising excesses have been ruled unconstitutional. Incumbent legislators and entrenched interest groups are reluctant to change a system that benefits them.
In contrast to California's failed attempts to address this issue, Arizona and Maine have adopted a system of public financing of elections that has shown promising results. Connecticut, under a Republican governor, also recently enacted public funding of elections. "Clean Money" has proven to be a success in Arizona and Maine. In both states, the diversity of the legislatures has increased. As a result, more women and minorities have qualified for office. Special-interest money had sucessfully stymied health-care reform in the past, but "clean money" representatives in Maine were not constrained to vote as high-pressure lobbyists dictated, and the state recently passed a voluntary system of single-payer health insurance. Arizona elected Janet Napolitano, a moderate, reform-minded Democratic governor, who ran "clean." Labor and conservative forces in both states, initially skeptical about the system, now endorse it. Grassroots efforts are growing in California and other states.
California now has a second chance at reform. Assembly Bill 583, which would set up a clean-money system of public funding of statewide elections, will be considered by the Assembly in mid-January. The bill's author, Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, held a formal hearing in Los Angeles last year, and a second hearing for public comment is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Oakland City Hall.
AB583, which uses elements of the Arizona and Maine models, would work this way: Candidates who agree to accept public funding must demonstrate a minimum level of support by gathering a set number of voter signatures and $5 dollar contributions from a specific number of voters in their district.
Each candidate receives money for his/her candidacy based on levels determined for each office. While the funding system is voluntary, efforts are made to create parity with privately funded candidates. "Clean money" candidates have the advantage of proving their allegiance to their constituencies, not to the big donors who fund special-interest candidates.
The California League of Women Voters supports AB583. We urge all voters (including those who have become disenchanted) to learn more about this legislation and to talk to their friends and neighbors about this proposal. We also need citizens to write to their legislators, and to contact Assembly Speaker Fabian NÃºÃ±ez, D-Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, to ask them to support this desperately needed reform effort. When elected officials rely on public funding, they will fully represent the voters and not the special interests who support their campaigns with large donations. Only then can citizens feel assured that they are the candidate's primary concern.
Anne Spanier is a board member of the Oakland League of Women Voters. Judy Cox is former co-chair and vice president of the Oakland League of Women Voters.