Clean Elections

The election of 2000 shocked the nation into realizing we have a serious problem with running elections. But beyond the Florida election flaws are other questions…

In 48 states, the skyrocketing cost of campaigns shows no sign of slowing down. The money chase has gotten so bad that Congress does little work on Mondays or Fridays and most evenings of the week, as members have to devote precious hours to dialing donors for dollars.

But it doesn't have to be this way. In two states, Arizona and Maine, campaign finance reform is opening the election process to newcomers and helping to break the lock wealthy special interests have on the legislative process. In both states, candidates for state offices win public financing on condition that they raise and spend no private money (including their own) and abide by stringent spending limits. To qualify, these “Clean Elections” candidates have to raise a large number of $5 contributions from voters in their district (the opposite of the system in most states, where candidates raise a small number of large contributions from a tiny, wealthy elite). Candidates who choose to run clean get public funds, and, if they are outspent by a privately financed opponent, additional matching funds are available.

In 2000, both states had maiden runs of Clean Elections, with promising results. A third of Maine's legislators were elected running “clean,” as were about one-fifth of Arizona's legislators. In 2002, these numbers were way up. In Maine, observers predicted that three quarters of the state senate and more than half of the state house would be made up of incumbents free of direct dependence on private donors. In Arizona, it was clear that six of the nine statewide offices would be held by candidates who ran “clean,” because all of the contenders for those offices participated in the Clean Elections system. Participation cut across party lines, with about seven out of 10 Democrats running ‘clean' in both states, and 53 percent of Republicans in Maine and 38 percent of Republicans in Arizona joining in. Independents, Greens and Libertarians also used the system. And both states experienced a substantial increase in the number of contested primaries. Clean Elections is changing both the nature of campaigning and the dynamics of governing.

By requiring candidates who choose to run clean to collect large numbers of $5 contributions, politicians are forced to spend more time with average voters. “When I ran for attorney general [in 1998], I sat in my office for five or six hours a day asking people for money,” Janet Napolitano told The Arizona Republic. But her campaign for governor this year has been different.

After turning in over 6,000 qualifying contributions last summer, she said, “It's been a great grass-roots Phase I of the campaign. You don't have to come to a $250-a-plate dinner to take part. Most people can afford $5.”

Legislators from Maine and Arizona who participated in Clean Elections in 2000 say that the experience caused them to run campaigns that were more grass-roots oriented, and it has changed life in the statehouse. Beth Edmonds, the chair of the senate's labor committee, recalls the debate over a bill to require that truckers receive overtime pay for long hours. “All the trucking companies were in my committee room. The truckers themselves weren't there. But I know I haven't taken a penny from the companies and they know that too. None of them have any ownership of me.”

It is too soon to say that money no longer talks in either state capitol, but it clearly doesn't swagger as much. Last year, the Maine legislature passed a bill creating a Health Security Board to devise a detailed plan for a single-payer health care system for the state. The bill wasn't everything its sponsor, Rep. Paul Volenik, wanted, but he did feel its passage represents real progress
toward a universal health care system. Two years earlier, only 55 members of the House of Representatives (out of 151) voted for the bill. This time 87 did. “The bill moved dramatically further, and a portion of that is due to the Clean Election system,” Volenik said.

Under a little-noticed provision of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the General Accounting Office is conducting a study of the campaign systems in Maine and Arizona. As Congress examines what steps to take to further reform the federal election finance system, this study is one more sign that Clean Elections will be a big part of the national debate.

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