Memo on State Interests Advanced by Fair Elections HR 1826/HR 6116

Democracy Program Director Susan Liss and Senior Counsel Monica Youn authored a memorandum detailing factual backup for the state interests advanced by the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826/H.R. 6116). These interests include combatting corruption and the appearance of corruption, reducing the time demands of private fundraising, and enhancing political participation.

September 22, 2010

Democracy Program Director Susan Liss and Senior Counsel Monica Youn authored a memorandum detailing factual backup for the state interests advanced by the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826/H.R. 6116). These interests include combatting corruption and the appearance of corruption, reducing the time demands of private fundraising, and enhancing political participation.

Download memorandum [pdf]


FAIR ELECTIONS – A WIN FOR DEMOCRACY

This memorandum summarizes available evidence that public financing systems such
as the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826/H.R. 6116) help to decrease the risk of
corruption and the perception of corruption, reduce the time demands imposed by
private fundraising, and bolster political participation.

1. Public Financing of Campaigns Can Reduce Corruption

a. Reducing Actual Corruption

As currently structured, the financing system for congressional races carries a
substantial risk of corruption. Members who receive significant donations from
particular special interests may feel compelled to support their biggest donors’ interests,
creating a quid pro quo where legislative decisions are implicitly exchanged for
campaign funds. Such a system is particularly problematic where lawmakers on key
committees receive significant amounts of campaign funds from the very interests they
are charged with regulating. For example, during the passage of the Medicare
Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act in 2003, Rep. Walter Jones, (RNC)
decried the House vote as “political Sodom and Gomorrah night. It was absolutely
ugly.” As Members entered the House chamber, lobbyists representing prescription
drug companies who had given millions in political contributions stood at the entrance
to the chamber, pressuring legislators for their support. In the aftermath of the
extremely close vote, allegations of bribery swirled, as one of the deciding votes claimed
he had been offered campaign funds in exchange for his support.4 Congressman Jones,
deeply affected by the experience, now co-sponsors the Fair Elections Now Act. “It’s time to return the government to the people,” he writes. “Let the people, not the special
interest groups, control Washington."

Public financing has the potential to reduce such risks of corruption. An official
whose campaign financing stems from a wide array of small donors feels less pressure
to serve the interests of one powerful donor. As Robert Meza, an Arizona state
representative who participated in his state’s public financing system, noted, “I don’t
owe anyone after this race. I don’t owe them any favors and I think that’s
instrumental.” As noted earlier, large campaign contributions can have a corrupting
effect on the legislative process. But under public financing systems, legislators can
focus on their constituents’ interests in the merits of proposed legislation, without the
need to consider the “special” interests of those who contributed to their campaigns. As
Speaker Pingree notes, “[Maine’s] public financing system…allows us to pass bold and
bi-partisan legislation that is demanded by the public, even when industry forcefully
objects.”

When special interest donations carry less weight, legislation can be considered
on its merits. As former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano explained with regard to
that state’s prescription drug bill: “If I had not run [using public financing], I would
surely have been paid visits by numerous campaign contributors representing
pharmaceutical interests and the like, urging me either to shelve the idea or to create it
in their image. All the while, they would be wielding the implied threat to yank their
support and shop for an opponent in four years. [Instead,] I was able to create this
program based on one and only one variable: the best interests of Arizona’s senior
citizens.”

Connecticut’s expansion of its recycling program offers a similar story. As state
representative Chris Caruso, a key player in passing the legislation, tells it, “For many
years, environmentalists have tried to expand the bottle bill recycling program to
include 5-cent deposits on plastic water bottles, but the powerful beverage industry and
its paid lobbyists were able to stop every effort at reform because they gave thousands
of dollars to legislators.” However, with the institution of Connecticut’s public
financing program, the state legislature could finally consider the bottle bill on its
merits. Similarly, in 2007, Maine passed a comprehensive consumer protection bill, giving the government the power to ban products containing harmful chemicals. As
Speaker Pingree explains, this result would have been less likely had Maine’s legislators
been beholden to industry fundraising. Public financing allows legislators to focus on
the merits of legislation, rather than on its potential implications for campaign
fundraising.

Reducing Perceived Corruption

As the Supreme Court noted in Buckley v. Valeo, “Of almost equal concern as the
danger of actual quid pro quo arrangements is the impact of the appearance of
corruption stemming from public awareness of the opportunities for abuse inherent in a
regime of large individual financial contributions.”10 Nearly as important as the
presence of actual bribery, the Court suggested, is the public’s belief that the current
system of campaign finance breeds corruption. Indeed, the Court’s fears of public
distrust and cynicism are well founded. As Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) succinctly
put it, “I hate the fact that the general public thinks that every time I raise a dollar, I am
being bought. I hate it. It is bad not just for me, it is bad for the system, it is bad for
people’s perception of government.”

Public opinion polls confirm that the current fundraising system fosters the
appearance of corruption, leading the public to believe that political contributions buy
political favors, and eroding trust in government.

  • A Greenberg-McKinnon national survey in February found that 79% believed members of Congress are “controlled” by those who fund their campaigns as opposed to just 18% who thought voters were in charge.
  • A compilation of 19 swing district Survey USA polls in March showed that voters across the board think that members of Congress listen to donors more than to them by a 87% to 12% margin, including a wider average gap of 90% to 8% gap among independents.
  • A Rasmussen national survey in August 2010 found that 70% of voters believe that “most members of Congress [are] willing to sell their vote for either cash or a campaign contribution.”

A shift to a system of public financing could help restore this lost faith in government.
Already, participants in state public financing systems have seen a change in public
opinion. “Overall people are excited about [public financing] because they feel that their particular legislator will not be tied to special interest dollars and that means a lot
to them,” said Leah Landrum Taylor, an Arizona state representative who participated
in her state’s public financing program.12 Even candidates who chose not to participate
in the state’s program have noticed the shift. In a GAO survey, an anonymous
nonparticipating Arizona candidate wrote, “I believe the program has helped restore
the public’s faith in the integrity of candidates. Hopefully, many other states, and
eventually Congress, will adopt public funding of elections.”13 Public financing can
ease voters’ distrust and suspicion of their elected officials, fostering greater trust in the
government.

2. Public Financing Allows Elected Officials to Focus on Their Duties, Rather Than
on Fundraising.

Under the existing system of private campaign contributions, fundraising
monopolizes a candidate’s time, with elected officials spending many of their hours
“dialing for dollars” or attending closed-door fundraisers. Former Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz”
Hollings (D-SC) estimated that almost one-third of a senator’s time is spent on
fundraising.14 Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) reported spending nearly 20 hours a day on
the phone, trying to coax donations, not from her constituents, but from wealthy out-ofstate
interests. A system of public financing eliminates this time bind. Connecticut
state senator Al Adinolfi reported that he “used to spend months on the phone
fundraising,” but that the state public financing system has now relieved him of that
need.

Public financing frees up more time for candidates and legislators to focus on
their constituents. To quote Matthew Lesser, a state representative in Connecticut,
“After I qualified for public financing…I was able to spend all of my time on the
campaign, meeting voters directly and understanding more fully the range of their
concerns. That made me a better candidate, one more responsive to the needs and
priorities of my prospective constituents.”

A 2003 University of Maryland study confirmed that candidates who participate
in full publicly funded electoral systems spend significantly less time raising money
than other candidates. U.S. House candidates in contested elections reported spending an average of 34 percent of their time raising money. In states with public financing, publicly financed state legislative candidates reported spending only 8 percent of their time fundraising, as opposed to 24 percent of their time for privately financed state legislative candidates.

3. Public Financing Increases Political Participation

A shift to public financing can drastically expand the scope of political
participation. By moving the focus of elections away from never-ending, high-stakes
fundraising, public financing fosters political participation by a broader range of the
electorate.

Most immediately, public financing generates a larger, more diverse pool of
donors. Instead of focusing exclusively on wealthy donors, publicly financed
candidates can look to a broader population of small donors. Cicero Booker, a
Connecticut state senate candidate from one of the state’s poorer regions reported
remarkable success fundraising in his home district. Under a system that emphasized
a large number of small donations, even the poorer members of Booker’s community
could contribute. Moreover, each knew his or her small donation, a mere drop in the
bucket under traditional fundraising, would be meaningful. Many members of
Booker’s community chose his campaign for their first-ever campaign contribution.
Vincent Marino, a Connecticut state senatorial candidate, offered a similar experience,
explaining that public financing helped create a “buy-in from a lot of people early on in
the process, from a grassroots perspective” Indeed, after the enactment of New York
City’s multiple matching fund public financing system, the number of political donors
grew by 35% over a 12-year period. In 2009, the average participating City Council
candidate had almost triple the number of small donors than her non-participating
counterpart.

Perhaps even more importantly, this increased voter engagement allows
candidates to reach out to underserved communities, likely passed over under systems
emphasizing large private contributions. Meeting her potential constituents, Speaker
Pingree spoke to “people who’d never had a chance before to tell a politician what they
think.” Running for Governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano had a similar experience. “[Public financing is] the difference between being able to go out and spend your time
talking with voters, meeting with groups,….traveling to communities that have been
underrepresented in the past, as opposed to being on the phone selling tickets to a $250
a plate fundraiser.” In a system with less emphasis on large contributions, the focus
returns to the voter, and the candidate’s ability to connect with his or her potential
constituents.

Just as it creates new contributors and new voters, public financing can also lead
to a more diverse candidate pool. When extensive private fundraising is no longer a
prerequisite for candidacy, running for office seems less daunting to non-traditional
candidates. Thanks to Maine’s system of public financing, Speaker Pingree has been
able to recruit people, “who never thought they’d have the chance to represent the
people who are their friends and neighbors – young people, people from minority
communities, people who thought they would never be able to afford the cost of
running for public office.” Indeed, once they remove the nearly prohibitive costs of
candidacy, states with public financing see a rise in non-traditional candidates. The
number of women running for office in Connecticut is at an all time high, and many
credit public financing with allowing them to run. A lack of fundraising prowess no
longer needs to nip a promising candidacy in the bud. Deborah Simpson, a Maine State
Representative, noted, “With the Clean Elections, it seemed less daunting a task to run.
I could do what I can do, which is talk to people, as opposed to raising money, which in
my life, I didn’t have any experience in.” As Connecticut candidate Karen
Houghtaling, a forty-one year old grandmother with two jobs, put it, “I knew I could
never be competitive in a system where someone was essentially encouraged to rely on
big, private money contributions." Supported by public financing, other female
candidates are able to run for office, even while juggling night school or multiple jobs.
A similar trend exists among minority candidates. In the election immediately
following Arizona’s shift to public financing, three times as many Latino and Native
American candidates ran for office, as compared to the previous election.