Cleaning Up Elections

The Nation magazine, September 17/24, 2001


The terrain of the battle for campaign finance reform has now shifted to the House of Representatives and, less noticed but more important, to the Massachusetts legislature. Two approaches to reform are at issue. One limits the ways that private money can be given and spent in elections; the other holds that replacing big donations with public financing is the only way to cleanse a rotten system.

In the House, reformers are collecting signatures on a discharge petition that would force a floor debate and a vote on the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill, which the GOP leadership buried in the last session. They need 218 signatures; Common Cause had tallied 205 signatures on the petition, including fifteen Republicans.

House passage of Shays-Meehan would be a significant victory for Congressional reformers, but it will not win the war against the big money corrupting the system. Like McCain-Feingold, its Senate counterpart, Shays-Meehan bans soft money, but it also doubles the amount of hard-money contributions wealthy special interests can make. US PIRG reports that had these changes been in effect for the 2000 elections, the top 144 lobbying firms in Washington would have been prevented from giving $1.4 million in soft money, but they could have legally given $8.7 million more in hard money.

The only way to achieve meaningful campaign finance reform is through full public financing. That's why Massachusetts, where a Clean Elections bill is currently bottled up in the legislature, is so important. Like similar legislation already implemented in Maine, Arizona and Vermont, Clean Elections would enable public officials to run fully funded, viable campaigns for office without having to depend on private donors to any significant degree. Under Clean Elections laws, candidates who agree to raise little to no private money and abide by strict spending limits can qualify for equal grants of full public financing for their campaigns. Additional matching funds are given if a participating candidate faces a high-spending opponent. Prospective candidates qualify by collecting a fairly large number of very small (around $5) contributions. The laws free them from the private money chase and make reaching out to voters on the issues and organizing a grassroots base more important than fundraising ability. In short, democracy the way it ought to be.

In 1998 Massachusetts voters passed a Clean Elections initiative by a two-to-one margin. But Thomas Finneran, the Democratic state House speaker, has used various maneuvers to prevent the law from going into effect for the 2002 election. Finneran's machinations have rallied reform-minded citizens to the law's defense. Pressure from grassroots activists led by Mass Voters for Clean Elections has been so intense that several lawmakers were compelled to switch their positions after a vote this past spring in the state House that would have stripped the law of its funding. Later, the state Senate overwhelmingly backed a countermeasure that fully funds the system. Now the matter is bottled up in a conference committee, while Republican Governor Jane Swift has tried to force the issue by including full funding for Clean Elections in an interim state budget and' we hope, will continue to do so.

On August I candidates for statewide office started the process of collecting the 6,000 contributions (of no more than $100 each) the law says they must have to qualify for a base-level grant of $1.6 million for the primary. Lower-level and legislative candidates are seeking to "run clean" as well. But the vision of a people-driven democracy won't be realized in Massachusetts until Finneran relents in his opposition to a Clean Elections law. Readers can help by going to the website or by calling Finneran's office at (617) 7222500. A March for Democracy, from Lexington to Boston, is planned for September 16.

Just as woman suffrage started with laws passed in the states and led to the Nineteenth Amendment, the Clean Elections movement is bubbling up from the states. After four pioneering states gave women the vote, it took another twenty years before woman suffrage was national. Let's hope it won't take that long for Clean Elections to become the law of the land.

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