Today, several dozen Yale students are taking Hartford by storm. Members of Students for Clean Elections, the Yale College Democrats and reform-minded Yalies of all persuasions are going to the Capitol to bring the issue of clean elections directly to legislators. “Get on the Bus for Reform” is all about students taking ownership of issues that matter to them. Age is no boundary to representation, and therefore we choose to participate fully in the political life of Connecticut.
We will be joined by members of the New Haven Board of Aldermen and several members of the New Haven Delegation to the Connecticut General Assembly. Together, we will hold a press conference and state our aims to pass two measures: Senate Bill 61, which would implement statewide campaign finance reform, and Senate Bill 877, which would allow municipalities such as New Haven to experiment with partial public financing of mayoral elections. Afterward, several students will testify at a public hearing of the Committee for Government Administration and Elections. Finally, we will all meet with several legislators to ask them directly for their support on this critical legislation.
Money has an insidious influence on politics that even the most decent and upright of politicians cannot avoid. The system is stacked against them and against the voters. Sen. John McCain says that U.S. senators spend an average of one-third of all of their working hours over six years soliciting funds for re-election bids. As Sen. Robert Byrd has said, “It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics.” The impact is felt by every candidate for every political office — they cannot avoid the fact that a contributor’s check helps their chances for election more than a constituent’s vote. They have to spend more time seeking money than votes. If they win, they cannot but owe the people who gave them money. Since there are fewer of them than there are voters, politicians cannot help but privilege their contributors.
All of this means that politicians, even the best of them, are less able to fight for what they should really care about — their constituents. Politicians are dissuaded from expressing dissenting views because party bosses control their funds and can determine their re-election chances solely on the grounds of whether or not they followed orders on a given vote. Who suffers in this system? The average working Americans who can’t pull strings with their checkbooks.
Clean elections matter at every level of government. Increasingly, across the country, public elections have become private property. In the 2004 presidential campaign, if you include all of the money spent by independent 527 organizations, political parties, political action committees and the candidates themselves, the total is more than $1 billion. Is this really the best use of money? And who contributes that money? Yes, small donors played a huge role in political fund-raising in 2004. But the largest portion of the money still comes in checks of more than $1,000. In Connecticut, 80 percent of all the money contributed to political campaigns in 2002 came from less than 1 percent of the population. Even in New Haven, a city where there is almost never Republican opposition, mayoral candidates spent more than $1 million in 2003. Most of the money came in checks of $1,000 or more, much of it from people who do not even live in New Haven. With turnout in the city’s election as low as 20 percent, the city’s residents are losing out.
Senate Bill 61 would implement a voluntary system of public financing for statewide elections in Connecticut. The lessons of Gov. Rowland are clear — money is a dangerous weapon in Connecticut politics. The bill would allow credible candidates to accept voluntary spending limits in exchange for grants from the state. If one candidate chooses to turn down public funds in an attempt to outspend his or her opponent, the opponent will receive matching funds from the state. The bill would level the playing field for statewide elections, significantly reduce the overall cost of running for office and control the private funds that have smeared the state’s politics.
The same principles that make Senate Bill 61 good for Connecticut make Senate Bill 877 good for New Haven. The bill would allow New Haven to institute a system of partial public financing. By agreeing to voluntary spending limits and a cap on individual contributions, candidates would receive matching funds of four to one from the city. The annual cost to the city would be about $100,000, or approximately what the city spends daily on debt service. The system would drastically reduce the amount of money spent on local elections and would give candidates, particularly challengers, a fair shot at winning. It is completely constitutional — no one would be required to participate.
Today, Yale students are taking action. We know that change does not happen unless committed people, especially young ones, do something about it. Real election reform has a strong chance of passing in Connecticut this year. We plan to do our part.
Ted Fertik, a sophomore in Trumbull College, is political director of Students for Clean Elections. Brendan Gants, a freshman in Morse College, is campaigns coordinator for the Yale College Democrats.