With the nation’s first billion dollar presidential campaign, pay-to-play scandals occurring at breakneck speed (think Jack Abramoff and Norman Hsu), results in elections that are flawed by suppressed votesand machine error(and a War that Stays the Course despite the millions who went to the polls in November 2006 with a demand to end it), the public has had it with politicians who don’t listen to them, care about them, or respond to their concerns. This climate of discontent has led to a rethinking among champions of public financing and clean elections about how to channel their efforts into a larger, more holistic pro-democracy movement. The key question for these reformers is this: how do we fashion a movement that taps into voters’ frustrations and captures the imagination for a cleaner, more democratic way?
Certainly there is good momentum in this direction. In Congress – where, for example, the entire Alaskan delegation is either under indictment or soon will be and the pressure for constant fundraising is unsustainable – there is a convergence of democratic values and ideals and more pragmatic considerations wrought by fundraising fatigue. (“The result of this nonsense is that almost one-third of a senator’s time is spent fundraising,” former Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings wrote in a Washington Post op-ed lat year.) There are two excellent bills with impressive co-sponsorship, the Durbin-Specter Fair Elections Now Act (S 1285) and in the House, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act of 2007 (HR 1614). Both bills would allow candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt-out of further private contributions to receive public funding. According to Senator Durbin, “Support is increasing for the idea of public financing in fair elections: seventy-four percent of all voters support public financing… 80 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 78 percent of Independents.”
There are also important state battles being waged and won in this arena. The Congressional legislation was modeled on successful public financing systems in Maine, Arizona and North Carolina. Connecticut has a new Clean Elections program and this week a Republican became the first candidate in the state to qualify for public financing in an upcoming special election. Maryland recently passed a public funding bill through its House of Delegates and fell just one vote short in the Senate. In all, seven states and two municipalities currently have publicly financed elections in which large private contributions are replaced by public grants and small donations.