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"Full public financing of elections is a structural adjustment, not a band-aid. It's a change that makes other changes possible." - Jim Ace, Ruckus Society

"Sweeping campaign finance reform is the one reform that can prevent the pollution and degradation of both our civic and natural environments." -
Granny D

There are few more obvious flaws in the American election system than the manner in which we fund campaigns. Candidates running for office in the United States often spend more energy on raising money than on dealing with prospective constituents. Media outlets regularly focus more on the relative size of candidates' "war chests" than on their views on major issues. Campaigns are reduced to a battle over who can afford more expensive advertisements than their opponents. And corporate and special interests write big checks to the very people who, if they win office, will be charged with overseeing their work on behalf of the public.

At best, this creates a widespread appearance of collusion between donors and government officials. At worst, it represents outright bribery, as has been displayed in a number of recent scandals in Congress.

This type of funding system can benefit only two entities - those wishing to buy influence from public officials and those public officials willing to be bought. Candidates that wish to focus on the concerns of the average voter are forced instead into an endless panhandling contest with their opponents. Many of the best potential candidates that really care about public service will simply refuse to run for office in such a system, a loss for all of us. And those who do win office are often left in a major conflict of interest as they balance the need to protect and serve their constituents with the expectations of a quid pro quo from their major donors.

Is it any surprise, then, that most Americans find it almost cliche that politicians are bought and paid for and can't be trusted?

Cleaning up Our Campaign Finance System

It doesn't have to be this way. There are a slew of campaign finance reform measures that could be passed to break the financial links between special interests and public officials. Of these many possible reforms, the most powerful would be instituting a system by which we finance campaigns fully from public funds.

In America, we publicly finance many of the things that we agree are crucial to the public interest. Libraries, post offices, police stations, fire stations and other public institutions are all supported by public funds. The election apparatus itself - the actual polling stations, voting machines and election workers - are also publicly funded. The campaigns of the people who are seeking the positions in which they will make decisions regarding all of these other entities and more should also be publicly financed.

What good is publicly financing all of our most important institutions and services and then putting their fate in the hands of officials who themselves may not be looking out for the public interest, but instead for the interests of their largest donors?

Publicly Financed Elections - or Clean Money Elections - are already in use in several places in the United States, including seven states and two cities. Activists are working throughout the country to institute it on a wider scale.

Do Publicly Financed Elections Cost Too Much?

There are some who oppose public financing of elections. For example, some complain that publicly financed elections would cost too much. Experience in the places where it is used shows otherwise. In fact, by eliminating the ties that often lead public officials to spend public funds in rewarding donors, Clean Elections will ultimately save us a great deal of money.

Is it Constitutional to Limit Private Campaign Donations?

The other argument often made is that donating to candidates is a free speech issue, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is actually one of the most powerful views that keeps our current corrupt system in place. In 1976, the Supreme Court, in a case known as Buckley v. Valeo, ruled that campaigns may not be limited in their spending. In explaining that decision, they made a landmark declaration equating money with free speech.

This misguided view that donating or spending money in a campaign is a First Amendment right, similar to the right to speak one' s view, implies that those who have more money may have more ability to speak. If you look at our current campaign funding system, you see that this is exactly what has happened. Wealthier donors are able to have their voices heard more often and wealthier candidates have far more ability to run for office than those of average means.

This is a circumstance that should not exist in the United States, where everyone is equal under the law and should have equal ability to have their views heard, to run for office, and to have their concerns recognized by their representatives in government - regardless of the size of their pocketbook. For this reason, MacArthur "Genius Award" winner and lawyer, John Bonifaz has focused on working to overturn the Buckley v. Valeo decision through his organization, the National Voting Rights Institute.

Clean Elections: The Change That Makes Other Changes Possible

There is probably not a single other action that we can take that would have a more powerful positive impact than cutting the financial ties between private and special interests and public officials. That one change in our system would remove the conflicts of interest that lead to wasteful spending and corrupt legislation affecting every area of our society - from health care to workers' rights to the environment.

I encourage you to learn more about campaign finance reform - especially publicly financed, clean money elections - and to get involved in promoting this reform that, perhaps more than any other, can have the most widespread positive impact on all of us, regardless of what policy area we personally care about most.

More Resources Regarding Campaign Finance Reform, Clean Money/Publicly Financed Elections

My Writings on Campaign Finance Reform

Organizations that Promote Clean Money Elections

Political Issues Page | Main Politics Page
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