Citizen Take On Campaign Finance Reform

Last year on Election Day, thousands of Maine volunteers spent a cold and rainy Tuesday outside voting places across the state. They passed out petitions for a ballot initiative that would radically reform the way political campaigns are financed in Maine.The volunteers collected 65,000 signatures that day, ensuring a spot for the "Maine Clean Elections Act" on this November's ballot. "There is overwhelming sentiment among Maine citizens that there is way too much money in politics, and voters are willing to put a little hard work into taking their democracy back," said David Donnelly, campaign manager of the broad-based Maine Voters for Clean Elections coalition.For nearly 20 years, Congress has been wrangling over legislative solutions to the widely held perception that politicians are up for sale to the highest "special interest" bidder. Lawmakers have introduced various proposals to limit spending on political campaigns and cap contributions made by Political Action Committees (PACs), lobbyists and wealthy individuals. But to date, no substantial legislation has been passed.Frustrated by the gridlock, more and more citizen coalitions at the state and local level are trying to circumvent both state and federal legislators and take the issue directly to the voters. According to the Center for a New Democracy, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. at least five states and two cities will likely hold referendum votes this year on campaign finance reform."We've seen citizen awareness of the problem really blossom," said Craig McDonald, the center's field director."People have the general attitude that after so many years of discussion of the issue at the national level, they just want to see something get done," agreed Ric Bainter, executive director of the Colorado Common Cause, another group that has actively pushed campaign reform. Campaigns are under way across the country:* In Maine, the ballot measure would limit campaign contributions from individuals, corporations and PACs to $500 for gubernatorial candidates and $250 for House and Senate candidates.Under the plan, if candidates voluntarily agree to limit their spending, refuse private contributions and shorten their campaign seasons, they would receive a set amount of public money from a "Clean Elections Fund."Donnelly said money for the fund would come from cutting the operating budgets of the legislative and executive branches and doubling lobbyists' registration fees, but not from raising taxes. "It takes money out of the equation, so the average person who runs for office doesn't have to have access to a lot of wealth," he said.* In Colorado, a diverse coalition of 13 groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the American Association of Retired Persons is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to impose $100 contribution limits for legislative candidates and $500 for statewide races. Colorado is one of five states that currently have no limits at all on campaign contributions.The measure would restrict PAC contributions and impose voluntary overall spending limits. Similar initiatives are also under way in Alaska and Arkansas.* In California, two separate citizen coalitions are sponsoring dueling campaign finance reform initiatives. One would double the contribution limits for candidates who voluntarily agree to follow campaign spending limits. The other would impose mandatory spending limits. Both seem likely to appear on the November ballot.* In Texas, where citizens have no referendum rights at the state level, residents of Austin are working to bring reform closer to home. A coalition called Priorities First is collecting signatures for a referendum vote that would limit PAC contributions to $1,000 per candidate.The coalition grew out of a citizen effort last year that successfully blocked a controversial city council proposal to issue "emergency" bonds to help finance construction of a new baseball stadium. The emergency designation allows the city to take on new debt without voter approval.Linda Curtis of Priorities First said that during the controversy residents clearly saw the influence of big money on political decisions. After the stadium fight was over, the coalition decided to stay together and go after the role of money in local politics."We want to try and straighten this out so no corporations can come into the city and try to buy up our city council," said Curtis. Under the proposed amendment, candidates would be required to receive 75 percent of their funds from individuals living within city limits.Not everyone agrees that capping contributions and limiting campaign spending will necessarily lead to cleaner elections. Bradley Smith, assistant professor of law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, said his research indicates that such approaches actually close the system to political newcomers."With spending caps and limited contributions, the only people who could ever win would be incumbents or people who already have high name recognition, like stars or sports figures," he said. "It's simply not true that if you limit expenditures then suddenly any Tom, Dick or Harry is going to be able to run for office or have all kinds of political influence."Campaign finance reform measures are also facing challenges in the courts. Civil liberties groups argue that restricting campaign contributions is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.A case brought against one of the earliest campaign finance reform initiatives, adopted by the District of Columbia in 1992, recently succeeded in the federal courts. An appeal is likely. The original D.C. measure limited campaign contributions to $100 for mayoral and $50 for council races for each two-year cycle.In 1994, Missouri, Montana and Oregon all had campaign finance reform laws pass by the ballot box. Missouri's was struck down by a federal courts and on appeal. Oregon's is facing a constitutional challenge and possible legislative repeal.Countering the civic liberties argument, McDonald of the Center for a New Democracy said it is the big contributors who are "drowning out the free speech of the smaller voices with smaller pocketbooks." And furthermore, it is the incumbents who benefit from the current system, pulling in seven to nines times as much in PAC contributions as their challengers, he said.In Florida, a referendum campaign is under way not to pass but to repeal public funding provisions of a state campaign finance reform law. One of the most outspoken opponents of the law has been Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who calls publicly financed campaigns "welfare for politicians."Mortham argues that under the law, citizens are forced to financially support campaigns they may disagree with philosophically -- to the tune of more than $11 million during last year's elections. "These are the very dollars that could be used for criminal justice, education, the environment and so forth," she said.But Beth Kidder of the Florida Public Interest Research Group said advocates will work hard to keep the law. In her view, public financing is not "welfare" for politicians, but a way to make them less beholden to special interests. She calls it "a large payoff for a small investment up front."What the different sides seem to agree on is that all of the citizen initiatives up for a November vote have a good chance of passing."Incumbent politicians have a self-interest in not doing anything," said McDonald. "Cleaning up elections is a job for citizens."

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