Sunday, July 22, 2007

Clean Elections, Federal Style

After reading the NJ Herald's account of how the clean elections program is going in the 24th Legislative District (Steve Oroho, Alison Littell McHose and Gary Chiusano vs. Edwin Selby, Pat Walsh and Toni Zimmer), one has to wonder if anything like it could ever work on the Federal level. Here's how the program works, from the NJ Herald:
To qualify for public financing under the state program, candidates must receive at least 400 contributions of $10 each, or $4,000, in order to get $46,000 in public dollars for a total campaign fund of $50,000. By receiving the maximum 800 $10 contributions, or $8,000, the matching public funds will bring each candidate to $100,000. Contributions must be from registered voters in the legislative district, and candidates must submit weekly reports to the state.

Candidates also are entitled to up to $10,000 in "seed money," which is comprised of donations of $500 or less from individual registered voters in the state, not any organizations.
While proponents of pay-to-play probably cringe at that last part, for the rest of us tired of corruption and the undue influence of special interest dollars in politics it's a breath of fresh air.

It would not be impossible to implement this at the Federal level, and I've outlined the cost, barriers and impact such a program may have on Washington below.

The Numbers

With the Census Bureau estimating New Jersey has 8,724,560 people, each of our 40 legislative districts represents roughly 218,114 people. Assuming each candidate achieves the maximum number of donations, that means each legislative district is paying $552,000, or $2.50 per person.

With each Congressional District representing roughly 703,500 people, if the percentage of required donors relative to population served remained the same (0.366%), each candidate would need to collect roughly 2,600 qualifying donations.

When you compare that to the 837 individual donations (0.119%) received by Representative Scott Garrett and the 811 received (0.115%) by Paul Aronsohn last year, you can see just how few individuals are actually participating in the process. Eliminate out of district donations, and it's even fewer.

The total pot of money using the same sort of formula would need to be $1.78 million, or $890,000 per candidate. That's more than either Garrett or Aronsohn raised from individuals, but less than Garrett had when adding special interest dollars. Realistically, this could and probably would be reduced as that amount exceeds what most campaigns raised and spent on the general election.

In the event it wasn't reduced, the total program cost for clean elections in the House: $775 million, assuming no Independents qualify for the maximum and each main party candidate qualifies for and spends the maximum (unused funds are returned to the Treasury).

In order to do this in the Senate, some minor tweaks would have to be made. The number of qualifying donations could be adjusted to meet each state's individual population so that each candidate would receive the same amount per person represented. For example, last year's campaign for Senate in New Jersey would have given each candidate $11 million, while in Pennsylvania they would have received $15.7 million each.

Due to the fact 1/3 of the Senate is up for reelection every two years, you could tack on another $258 million for those and bring the grand total for the program to slightly over $1 billion dollars per election cycle.

The Barriers

First off, getting politicians and their campaign staff to want to, at a minimum in most cases, triple or quadruple the number of donations from individuals they need to receive is unlikely. For example, Senator Bob Menendez brought in 8,701 individual donations (0.099%) last year; if the funding formula remained the same it would have to go to 32,000. However, with over 1.1 million registered Democrats within the state, a main party campaign should be able to pull it off.

Second, you'll have every special interest group saying their free speech is being limited if they don't get to donate to campaigns during the general election. There are 4,138 PACs who would want to be able to donate, as with NJ's program, they would still be able to donate during the primary and could send out an e-mail to their members living within a political district to send a check to their choice of candidate in the general. Those who want campaign cash to be the greatest influence in politics are unlikely to be happy with this idea. This would likely lead to one heck of a Supreme Court fight.

Third, you'll have the politics as usual power brokers serving within the House and Senate that would fight this plan. They'd come up with any number of reasons, but eliminating their ability to affect a general with that last second $5,000 donation from either their campaign or Leadership PAC, and therefore having a chip once a winning Representative comes to Washington, is a huge strike against this for them. Once again, they could donate toward the primary and see where things fall.

The Impact

While one might scoff at the $1 billion price tag, think about the reduction in the corruption tax each of us pays. The $90 billion of corporate welfare Garrett voted against removing a little while ago is just one example of where special interest crafted legislation costs taxpayers. Eliminate all of that and how much could we save? How much lower could our taxes go?

Also, clean elections would involve more people in the process. If a candidate had to come up with 2,600 donations from individuals living within the District, they would have to spend less time trying to woo the special interests and out of state mega donors, and more time with the actual people they represent. Imagine what might happen if candidates actually had to meet with the people they serve in order to get the money they need to get elected.

Sure, the special interests would still be players in the primary, but how difficult would it be to justify to the masses not participating in the program for the general because a candidate is a slave to the PACs? In many cases, the amount of money that would be provided is more than many candidates raise from individual and PAC contributions combined in an election cycle. The program eliminates the undo pressure so many feel to kowtow to the special interests as opposed to legislating according to their constituents' interests and beliefs.

I realize this may be a 1,200 word idealistic pipe dream, that would need a lot of work, but as a government intended to be of the people, by the people and for the people: if we wanted this there should be no reason we can't have it.

Faith in our elected officials continues to spiral downward, and corruption and campaign donation motivated partisanship are the primary reasons. While someone like Barak Obama will forgo PAC money, many politicians can't seem to get their hands out of the cookie jar. Having clean elections would force the candidates to change and has the potential of restoring faith in government in a way the super majority of our current officials can't seem to figure out how to do on their own.

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