A day-long conference, “Money in Politics 2009: Horizons for Reform,” convened by the Brennan Center [click here to see agenda, and follow on twitter: #bccfr], will take place today, May 8th, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The focus is on innovations that address the nexus between money and politics. One such proposal is the Fair Elections Now Act (“FENA”). The Act would build on successes in the states with systems of voluntary public funding of elections.
Embracing their role as “laboratories for democracy,” three states, Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, enacted voluntary public funding programs for legislative and statewide elections following well-publicized scandals to reduce the power of well-heeled special interests and to enhance the participation of ordinary citizens as both candidates and voters in the political process.
In each of the programs, candidates who opt to participate must raise a certain number of small donations, to qualify for the funding, which ensures that participants have community support for their bid for office. Once qualified, the candidate receives a grant of money from a clean elections fund and cannot raise or spend funds from other sources.
In all three states, participation rates in the program have been remarkably high and bi-partisan. In Connecticut, which just had its first election using the system, fully three-quarters of candidates for the General Assembly chose to participate. Also in 2008, in Arizona, 67 percent of candidates participated, and in Maine, 81 percent of legislative candidates participated. In both Arizona and Maine, which have had the program since 2000, participation has increased in every election cycle.
The programs are popular with candidates because they allow them to spend more time talking to voters about their views and qualifications, and less time fundraising. Such programs also enhance the significance of the small donors who provide the qualifying contributions for prospective candidates.
FENA, introduced in March in both the Senate and the House, creates a federal system of voluntary public funding that mirrors the state programs in many respects. Under FENA, candidates collect a minimum number of qualifying contributions that cannot exceed $100. Upon qualifying, candidates receive funds for the primary and general elections, and are subject to restrictions on funds from other sources.
The federal program was also adapted to reflect the “small donor revolution” that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. FENA allows candidates to continue raising small donations that are then supplemented 4 to 1 by fair elections funds, with a cap on the total fair elections funds available to any one candidate. FENA has the potential to finally change politics as usual in Washington, so that Members of Congress may focus on the concerns of the entire electorate.
The Money and Politics conference is a chance to take stock of this proposal and of other cutting-edge reforms. As the landscape and even the very mechanisms through which politics operate change, the responsibility of the reform community and our government is to adapt as well—precisely because the stakes are so high.