Public Financing of Campaigns Gets a Toehold in California
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for shaking up the state's broken political system. But even advocates of political change were surprised when he signed two important bills last week despite the opposition of his Department of Finance and powerful lobbyists in the capital. Give Schwarzenegger credit for making reform a priority.
AB 583 will take the first step, with voter approval, to public financing of state elections. SB 381 will allow Californians to register to vote online. Both bills deserve more attention than they got.
Two years ago, voters solidly rejected Proposition 89, a complicated package of reforms that included public financing for candidates for state office. Previous public financing bills had never made it out of the Legislature, because of the cost to taxpayers and because of strong opposition by powerful interests that would lose their influence. In putting together AB 583, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, and the California Clean Money Campaign scaled back their ambitions. The bill would create a trial run, with public financing for only the secretary of state's races in 2014 and 2018 - but only if voters authorize it through an initiative in 2010.
Public financing will be voluntary and modeled after financing systems in Arizona and Maine, where it has worked well to encourage more candidates to run for office and to reduce the role of big-monied interests. Secretary of state candidates who gather $5 contributions from 7,500 voters can forgo private donations in exchange for $900,000 in public money for their primary and general election campaigns. An annual $350 fee on state lobbyists, who nearly killed the bill, would fund the campaigns.
If the pilot works - and we think it will - voters should consider expanding public financing to the Legislature and statewide offices.
With SB 381, California will become the third state to allow online voting registration, joining Arizona and Washington. That should encourage the texting and Twitter generation to exercise its rights - and make it easier for everyone else, too.
Only those with signatures on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles will be eligible, since county registrars use a digitized version to authenticate mail-in ballots and verify voting at the polls.
Before proceeding, the secretary of state must complete a statewide database, a project that's a few years away, and decide what forms of identification voters will need to register online. There are concerns about privacy and fraud, but Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a skeptic of electronic voting, supported the bill by Sen. Charles Calderon, D-Montebello.
The Department of Finance opposed the bill because of several hundred thousand dollars of up-front costs. But Schwarzenegger took the long view. There will be long-term savings from eliminating paper registration and long-term value in persuading some of the 7 million eligible but unregistered Californians to become involved in the political process.
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