In the coming weeks, the New Haven Board of Aldermen will face a unique opportunity to revitalize democracy in one of its most fundamental institution: elections. The Democracy Fund proposal, brought forward by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., would simultaneously reduce the influence of special interest money in municipal elections and enable all candidates to compete for the office of mayor, regardless of wealth. Such a system of partial public financing, wherein qualifying candidates receive a 2-1 match of the first $25 of all contributions, a modest grant to jumpstart their campaigns, and agree to limit total spending and contributions, would place our city at the forefront of a national movement to revolutionize American elections.
The need for clean and fair elections at all levels of government has never been so great. Increasingly, dollars — not ideas — determine who runs for and achieves public office, while ordinary voters pay the price. In the 2001 New Haven mayoral elections, candidates raised and spent a record $1.2 million, with the incumbent mayor outspending his two challengers 2-1. The Democratic primary alone saw a nearly fourfold increase in money spent by the winning candidate since the last election.
This distortion of power also pervades our national system. It can come as no surprise that the average winners in last fall’s Senate races spent twice as much as their opponents, with 96 percent of incumbents maintaining their seats. Yet while money itself has a legitimate role to play in political campaigns, consider the sources from which it comes. With less than one-quarter of one percent of Americans giving appreciable campaign contributions, and more than 80 percent of donors earning more than $100,000 a year, the feeling of disenfranchisement by a majority of voters then comes as no surprise.
As long as private dollars continue to finance campaigns for public office, and the cost of such campaigns continues to rise, candidates will inevitably seek out the support of corporations, special interests, and wealthy individuals over that of ordinary voters. The result can be none other than a distortion of democratic values. As politicians necessarily compromise their public responsibilities to raise money for reelection, the policy they enact reflects not the wishes of ordinary citizens but those of the monied interests on whom they depend. Consider that U.S. Senators spend an estimated half of their working hours (3 years in a 6-year term) raising money for re-election. In the words of Arizona Sen. John McCain, “Bribery is the way the system works — We are defenders of an elaborate influences-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.”
The time for reform is now. Voluntary public financing of elections has been gaining ground in states and municipalities across America. If the Board of Alderman rises to the occasion in the coming weeks, the city of New Haven will soon conduct its mayoral elections under a radically new system of voluntary partial public financing. Under this system, candidates who demonstrate a threshold of public support by collecting relatively small contributions from a large number of citizens will receive a $15,000 grant to jumpstart their campaigns and an additional 2-1 match on the first $25 of all contributions. In exchange, candidates agree to abide by a $200,000 spending limit in the primary and general elections, and may collect contributions of no more than $300. As such, their focus in campaigning will necessarily shift from corporate and special interests to average voters. Furthermore, those citizens who are dissatisfied with the present system and have credible ideas of their own to bring to the table will now stand a credible chance at achieving public office, regardless of personal wealth or their ability to dial for dollars.
Ours is a unique opportunity to reform the means by which candidates seek and win public office. Partial public financing of New Haven mayoral elections comprises a vital first step to restoring democracy to its rightful guardians — the people.
Ana Munoz is a junior in Branford College and Daniel Weeks is a freshman in Berkeley College. They are co-coordinators of Students for Clean Elections.