What is the problem? What are Clean Elections?
Democracy in America is threatened. Increasingly, ordinary citizens have lost their influence over lawmaking and public policy. Because candidates must raise huge sums to run for office and elected representatives are often concerned about financing their next campaign, candidates and elected officials are often at the mercy of the biggest donors rather than the true interests of voters in their district. The result is public policies that often fail to meet the needs and desires of most Americans.
“What’s the use?” ask the people as they become increasingly cynical and jaded toward our political system and politicians. The results are declining participation in our democracy and low turnout in voting.
We need full public financing of election campaigns, so candidates who represent the people can afford to run, and, once in office, are not obligated to special interests and lobbyists. Clean Elections will not solve all of our problems, but it will go a long way to breaking the link between big donors and public officials and it will help restore a government “of, by, and for the people.”
This work is not just a pipe dream. The states of Maine and Arizona have led the way by adopting public financing of election campaigns through citizen initiatives. Each year in those states, more candidates choose to run publicly funded campaigns through the Clean Elections systems. The results have been higher voter turnout, wider discussion of important issues, and new laws that benefit the majority of citizens. Now, several states and cities across the U.S. have passed similar legislation at varying levels of government. States with Clean Elections for some level of state government are Arizona, Maine, Connecticut, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont, and New Mexico. Cities with Clean Elections are Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon.
Clean Elections programs are working. Maine created a Clean Campaigns program in 1996 by citizen initiative. In 2008, 78% of the Maine State House and 86% of the State Senate used the public funding system. Then, in 2010, 77% of eligible candidates used the system. In Arizona, in 2008, over 70% of eligible candidates ran with public funds. Several other states and cities have full or partial public funding systems. These programs prove that Clean Elections campaigns are successful and popular. Candidates can run for office without being wealthy — and win on the strength of their ideas. They are indebted only to the voters in their district. Public financing brings diversity of candidates and views, eliminates “dialing for dollars” and allows more time discussing issues with constituents.
How Clean Elections work: The state creates an optional public fund that is financed in various ways. For example, in Arizona, funding comes from a 10% surcharge on criminal fines and civil penalties, as well as donations to the fund. Candidates qualify for public funds by gathering a specific number of small donations (usually $5) with signatures from voters in their district. Then candidates receive funds sufficient to run a campaign, on the promise they will accept no further private contributions nor will they use their own money.