For cleaner elections, we need public financing

Howard Dean caused a big ruckus a few weeks ago when he announced, after polling his supporters, that he would opt out of federal public matching funds for the primary season, something George Bush did in 2000 and again in this election. This controversy has sparked new discussion over the issue of public financing in federal elections, discussion that is desperately needed. The current problems show clearly that there is a need for full public financing of presidential primaries as well as elections.

First some clarification: the public financing system for presidential elections has two components — primary and general. No candidate has opted out of the general system since it was created. In the general system the nominee receives a grant that is adjusted for inflation (it is now at about $68 million), and promises neither to raise nor spend other money. The primary system is partial public financing — candidates receive matching funds at a one to one ratio for contributions up to $250. Candidates must still raise large sums of money to be competitive, but they must accept spending limits if they opt in.

Some frightening facts: one tenth of one percent of Americans contributed 83 percent of all campaign funds in 2002. Who then are the elected officials beholden to? But it’s worse than just that. In 2002, 98 percent of incumbents in the House of Representatives were reelected, thanks largely to a 5 to 1 fundraising advantage over their opponents. Do you really think Americans were happy with the performance of 98 percent of their representatives? And what’s more, United States senators spend as much as half of their six-year term fundraising for their reelection. In 2002, 94 percent of congressional candidates who out-raised their opponents won their race. Who are our politicians serving? Big donors get big benefits, and it happens in both parties.

Public financing for the presidential election was implemented after the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. The idea was to limit corruption, allow better candidates to run and win, and increase participation. They figured that since politicians will respond to whomever funds them, it’s better to have them beholden to the taxpayers than to special interests. Up until 2000, the system worked according to plan. Unfortunately the system has come upon hard times, as frontloaded primaries and increased fundraising levels by big money opponents have made opting in something close to suicide for serious candidates. If you can raise huge sums of money, it just doesn’t make sense to accept spending limits that cripple your campaign, especially with primaries ending in March — that leaves close to six months before the unofficial nominee can receive general election funds.

Public financing works. Maine and Arizona both have full public financing systems for all statewide offices. Already they have seen a decline in the number of incumbents getting reelected. The problem then in the presidential system, highlighted by Dean, Kerry and Bush opting out, is not that we have a public financing system, it’s that we don’t have enough of a public financing system. Dean has said that he supports improving the system so that no candidate feels they will be better off by opting out.

So the solution is not to give up. Money in politics is having a devastating effect on the culture of civic participation in this country. Only about half of eligible voters actually vote in presidential elections. In off years it is closer to one-third. Americans are increasingly disgusted with a political system that seems all too clearly to be controlled by the wealthy and devoid of real debate. Something must be fixed.

Federally, we need the primary system to mirror the general system. But we also need change at the local level. Even in municipal elections money is often a barrier that prevents good people with good ideas from getting into politics. Local politics are still often controlled by machine bosses or powerful special interests. We have a plan for a partial public financing system in New Haven, which would only cost the city about 80 cents per taxpayer. Candidates would be able to agree to spending limits in exchange for matching funds from the municipality, funds specifically designed to amplify the effects of small contributions. When $25 checks are suddenly worth $75, people like single mothers, working class immigrants, and any number of other underrepresented groups suddenly have a much greater say in the political process.

Public financing is a powerful system for many reasons. For one thing, it in no way violates constitutional free speech rights — no candidate is forced to accept public funds. It is also inexpensive and simple. Unfortunately, most elected officials in this country, especially at the federal level, have a vested interest in the current system. As incumbents they always get more money than their opponents, and it helps keep them in power. Opening up more elections to public financing puts their own jobs in danger, and it takes a pretty courageous politician to do that.

The answer then lies with everyday citizens. People have to start organizing in their cities and towns, insisting that their municipalities adopt public financing. We’ll have to eliminate the politicians who are owned by the wealthy and the special interests one by one. Because the 99.9 percent of Americans who didn’t contribute 83 percent of campaign funds don’t want that other 0.1 percent having all the say.

Ted Fertik is a freshman in Trumbull College. He is a member of Students for Clean Elections.