Publicly Funded Elections Would Save the Public's Money
The guilty plea of local Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham points to a sad truth about our elected public servants: They are often more interested in personal and political gain than in representing their constituents.
We are angry. We are betrayed.
But we are not surprised. The problem of money in politics is nothing new. Back in 1895, Mark Hanna said, "There are two things that are important in politics: The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is." We've had a lot of elections since 1895. We've had a lot of political campaigns and a lot of attempts at reform, but Hanna's words still ring true.
What can we do? One promising idea that is gaining ground in California is called "Clean Money," and it refers to a voluntary system of full public funding of election campaigns.
Already working in Arizona and Maine, Clean Money is an innovative yet practical measure whereby candidates have the option to run for office using public funds rather than relying upon private donations.
Instead of soliciting campaign donations from sources that will likely want favors down the road, candidates are free to take office beholden only to the voters that elected them.
Additionally, because Clean Money makes elections about the ideas and merits of the candidates instead of fundraising competitions, more good people with good ideas who lack the wealth or wealthy connections can run viable campaigns. Rather than spending hours a day "dialing for dollars," those candidates can go out in the community to meet with and listen to the concerns of voters.
Clean Money is a simple concept: Show a broad base of support in the district and get a reasonable amount of public money. Candidates qualify for public funding by gathering a required number of $5 contributions and signatures of support from residents within the district they hope to represent. Once they attain the necessary number of qualifying contributions, candidates agree not to collect private contributions and not to spend their own money on their campaigns. To counteract the advantage of wealthy candidates who finance their own campaigns, clean candidates receive a dollar-for-dollar match up to a set limit if a non-participating candidate exceeds the basic public grant.
This dollar-for-dollar match also kicks in if an independent group makes an expenditure that brings the amount spent attacking a Clean Money candidate or promoting his or her opponent above the amount provided by the public.
It sounds expensive, doesn't it? It's not. Our state Clean Money bill would cap the system at about $134 million per year or about $5.50 per adult Californian. This is less than the cost of buying a latte and a bagel, and much less than the astonishing $300 million spent during November's special election.
At the end of the day, Clean Money will save Californians money. When politicians are no longer dependent on big money donors, they will no longer be looking out for the narrow interests of these donors. With Clean Money, they can focus on voter needs rather than donor demands for special favors, tax loopholes and giveaways that cost Californians millions every year.
Clean Money will not make all politicians ethical. It will not guarantee that we never have another Duke Cunningham.
But it is a sensible proven solution to a grave problem in our electoral system. It will give voters something we all want, namely government that is open and accountable to all of its citizens. It may also make Mark Hanna's assessment of money in politics a relic of times past.
Susan Lerner is executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan nonprofit advocating full public funding of election campaigns. Coronado resident Jean Seger is a member of the campaign's San Diego working group.
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