ACLU challenges new state campaign finance law

Connecticut’s nascent program of publicly financed elections could collapse before the reformed system even takes effect, following a legal challenge to the program filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut on behalf of a coalition of minor-party leaders and lobbyists.


The lawsuit argues that the clean-elections law, passed last December and amended in May, discriminates against minor-party candidates and violates the free-speech rights of certain categories of political donors, including lobbyists and their families. The ACLU asked the court to prevent publicly financed elections from being implemented unless the state legislature amends the current law. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are the ACLU, a Connecticut Green Party leader, the Libertarian party, a liberal lobbyist and the wife of a lobbyist for the Connecticut Bar Association.


The bill, which had been heavily lobbied for by Yale students, establishes a voluntary system that lets candidates decline donations from lobbyists, state contractors and those individuals’ immediate family members. In exchange for declining that money, the candidates receives grant money from the state with which to run a campaign. Connecticut was the first state whose legislature established a system of public financing, but Maine and Arizona established comparable systems by public referendum.


But to become eligible for state grants, candidates must first prove their viability by raising a certain amount of money — the amount depends on the office sought — through individual contributions of under $100. Minor-party candidates must also have received 10 percent of the vote in a prior election or have gathered signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for that office in the prior election cycle — and it is this additional requirement on minor parties that sparked the Green Party’s ire.


Ted Fertik ’07, former president of Yale Students for Clean Elections, said the bill’s treatment of third parties is due to the law’s having been enacted by the legislature rather than by referendum, causing it to be more friendly to incumbents than Arizona’s and Maine’s. Still, he said he does not support the Green Party’s suit because he thinks publicly financed elections could minimize the influence of money in campaigns.


“It’s important that we hear other voices, and it’s important that people are able to compete, but … this bill, I think, will really transform politics in Connecticut and … will really bring in more progressive candidates,” Fertik said.


Michael DeRosa, this year’s Green Party candidate for secretary of state, said the additional requirements violate the Greens’ right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment by making it difficult for Green candidates to receive public funds. DeRosa said he would have preferred a law more like that of Maine or Arizona, which do not differentiate between major and minor parties in determining what a candidate must do to qualify for public financing.


“These petitioning requirements are nothing more or less than a form of political censorship,” DeRosa said.


Eric Ehst, executive director of the Clean Elections Institute of Arizona, said that since Arizona?s law took effect in 2000, only one minor-party candidate for governor and five minor party candidates for state legislature have qualified for the system.


Andy Sauer, executive director of Connecticut’s Common Cause, which lobbied for the bill, criticized the lawsuit for attacking a bill that he acknowledged was imperfect but still valuable. Sauer said that if the lawsuit is successful it will be difficult to get the legislature to pass a revised bill, considering how difficult it was to get bill first approved in December 2005. The floor debate in December had lasted nearly six hours, and the passage of the bill was widely seen as being made possible by political pressure on the legislature following the corruption that landed former Gov. John Rowland in jail and earned the state the nickname “Corrupticut.”


“The legislature, deep down in their hearts, don’t like this issue,” Sauer said. “It’s safe to say that if the judge rules in favor of the ACLU and the Greens, that will be the end of the act.”


Sauer said the initial reforms tried to remove lobbyist money from the system, and he questioned the motives of the lobbyists now criticizing the law for infringing on their free-speech rights. He said the Green Party should have asked the judge to rule just on the portion of the law dealing with minor-party petitioning requirements rather than seeking a ruling on the entire piece of legislation.


“If the Greens and, for that matter, the ACLU were really serious about wanting to preserve the good parts of reform but eliminate the parts that they find objectionable, they could have easily targeted the part that deals with signatures and left it at that,” he said. “It speaks volumes about the intentions of the state lobbyists that they’re … looking to enjoin the entire public act.”


DeRosa said the Green Party was focused mostly on the petitioning requirements and did not necessary agree entirely with its fellow plaintiffs.


Both Gov. M. Jodi Rell and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 have said they believe the current law is constitutional. As the law stands, publicly financed elections will begin for statewide races in the 2008 election cycle.

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