"On the Road to Clean Elections" Debuts in West Virginia
by Janet Fout
On June 9, a key West Virginia legislative subcommittee heard testimony from Citizens for Clean Elections, a new coalition of groups that support the West Virginia Clean Elections Act. Afterwards everyone watched "On the Road to Clean Elections," a video narrated by journalist Bill Moyers, highlighting the success of Clean Elections in Maine and Arizona.
West Virginias Clean Elections bill, introduced into both houses of the legislature in 2002, allows a candidate for the legislature or governors race to choose voluntary, public financing for his/her campaign. Speaking on behalf of the WV Clean Elections Act was Si Galperin, a board member of Common Cause West Virginia; Bob McDonald, current president of Common Cause WV; Carol Warren, a representative of the Wheeling Catholic Diocese; and Janet Fout, current coordinator of Citizens for Clean Elections.
The West Virginia Clean Elections Act is modeled after bills enacted in Maine, Arizona, Massachusetts and Vermont. Aimed at trying to stem the tide of special interest contributions to lawmakers and to reduce overall the amount of money it takes to run a political campaign, a person who opts to run as a Clean Elections candidate agrees to spending limits and pledges to take no contributions from outside sources, including personal financing.
Heres how it works. Instead of collecting a few large contributions from big special interests, a candidate must collect within a designated time period numerous $5 contributions from voters living in his/her district in order to qualify for public funding. These "qualifying contributions," as they are called, indicate a good base of grassroots support for the candidates race.
Once a person qualifies as a Clean Elections candidate, he/she is allotted a set amount of money to run the campaign. If a Clean Elections candidate is outspent by a non-participating candidate, the Clean Elections candidate can receive up to 200 percent of the original funding to help level the playing field.
Maine and Arizona became the first two states to implement this system in the 2000 election. The system won the praise of incumbents and challengers, Democrats and Republicans. Over 170 candidates opted into this system and it was a clear success in its first year of operation. Clean Election reform has:
Lets face it. Were getting less democracy for more money. The skyrocketing cost of campaigns pushes candidates into a money chase. During the 2000 election in West Virginia, most contributions came from less than one-half of 1 percent of the population. Voters are turned off and many qualified candidates are excluded by lack of funds. Candidates spend too much time raising money and not enough time with voters.
We all know that there is no such thing as a "free lunch" or in this case, a free campaign. So, one question that always arises is, How much will public financing cost?
The cost of running the Clean Elections system in states that have passed similar campaign reform is less than $1 per state resident. Remember, the current system of campaign financing is not "free" to state taxpayers. For example, virtually every legislative session, lawmakers pass new tax breaks for Coal. Citizen taxpayers then must foot the bill for these lost tax dollars. Many people believe these tax breaks for Coal are a payback for Coals generous campaign contributions.
The West Virginia Clean Elections Act, as currently written suggests the following ways to help finance Clean Elections campaigns:
CAll $5 qualifying contributions.
LFines levied for violation of election laws.
JVoluntary donations to the Clean Elections Fund. (Contributors are eligible for a dollar per dollar state income tax credit for donations of up to $500.)
BRevenue from a $3 state tax check-off program.
FInterest generated by the Clean Elections Fund.
KOther sources decided by the Legislature.
The Citizens for Clean Elections believes that public financing of elections in West Virginia is one way to help revitalize and restore faith in our democracy. If your organization would like a presentation on the West Virginia Clean Elections Act or if your group would like to belong to the Citizens for Clean Elections, please contact:
Citizens for Clean Elections, P.O. Box 6753, Huntington, WV 25773-6753 or call 304-522-0246 for more information.