Eagleton Institute Panel Discussion on Publicly Funded Elections

On November 12, 2007 NJLP Chairman Lou Jasikoff and I attended the Eagleton Institute of Politics panel discussion on publicly funded elections in New Jersey. For this year’s experimental test of the so-called “fair and clean elections” (FACE) process, candidates in three state legislative districts were required to collect a minimum of 400 $10 contributions from residents of the district to qualify for “clean elections” labeling and funding. In the 14th District Libertarian Assembly candidate Jason Scheurer managed to meet that standard.

I anticipated that the panel’s discussions would essentially support the FACE program where taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize candidates who satisfied the fund-raising criterion. Imagine our surprise when the very first speaker at the panel discussion said that he “hates clean elections” and presented three reasons for his view.

The speaker was Greg Edwards, President of the New Jersey Center for Policy Research. Mr. Edwards argued that the “clean elections” program contains three biases and was simply a disguised effort to alter the rules to favor one side over others in the election process.

The first bias was toward the status quo. Incumbents are enormously favored in elections anyway and the clean elections program made things worse. Spending caps favor incumbents because challengers must spend more money to have an effective campaign.

The second bias is a partisan one. It is more difficult to gain contributions from conservative and Republican voters (and Libertarians!) who oppose public financing in principal, while liberal Democrats readily accept it. In addition, it is more difficult to collect the contributions in rural or suburban areas as opposed to urban environments. Edwards specifically noted the unfairness toward our candidate in this year’s election and said that he “hopes the 14th District Libertarian candidate wins his legal challenge.”

The third bias Edwards noted is special interest favoritism. He pointed out that it is much easier for membership organizations like the Communications Workers of America union to get individual contributions than for a company like Pfizer to get such contributions from its employees. The “clean elections” system also fosters independent expenditures outside the formal election campaigns themselves.

Ingrid Reed is the Director of the New Jersey Project for Eagleton and she asked if there is a way to get our citizens to participate in elections. She mentioned three states with “clean elections” and public funding. In Vermont she noted that the challenger automatically gets more money. In Arizona there are more conservative candidates and in Maine their program was adjusted to accommodate their less affluent residents.

The next speaker was Dr. Gerald Pomper, a Rutgers Professor Emeritus of Political Science. Pomper said he wants a “good” election, which he then defined as meaningful debate by candidates on their positions, accurate information to the voters, relative equality in presentations, uncorrupted access to officials, easier access to run for office, and effective voters, that is voters choices actually affect the political system. Dr. Pomper said emphatically “spending is necessary to educate voters” especially for challengers! He noted that the expected expenditures next year for all elections was $4 billion and this amount was less than that spent on advertising in one afternoon
during the Super Bowl. Pomper added that quality is more important than quantity of money expended and that negative campaigning may be a good thing, if it produces important information for voters.

Pomper stated that he supports giving advantages to major parties. He said the political system should not fund “kooks” and mentioned Dennis Kucinich, the Libertarian Party, and Ron Paul. This comment disturbed our corner of the udience, but we held our outrage until later in the discussion when Dr. Pomper repeated his insulting comment.

The last panel speaker was Mr. Daryn Cambridge from the organization Democracy Matters. Mr. Cambridge is a 26-yearold graduate of Middlebury College who works with young people and his root concerns are political policies and “private money.” Young people cannot “pay to play.” He cited this statistic: “only 1/4 of 1 percent of people donate $200 or more to political campaigns.” Dr. Pomper challenged the implications of that statistic noting that the rich do not speak with a single voice.

The student moderator of the panel, Simon Berger, asked the panel to discuss the “free speech issue.” Cambridge felt there was no free speech issue, because it was optional for the candidates to participate. His view is that people who can’t buy access have their speech denied. Ms. Reed noted that in 30 of the 40 legislative districts the political parties do not support candidates who cannot win. Dr. Pomper said more money is needed for campaigns for “the two” parties. Pomper mentioned that Ron Paul gained major funds in the Republican primary recently, implying that alternative parties were unnecessary. Mr. Edwards said there is “no easy fix.” He does not see any way
that New Jersey politicians would give challengers more money, and he cited his experience as executive secretary for the New Jersey Senate to support that evaluation. Ms. Reed noted that more and more money is coming from state party funds (an equality just established for the NJLP!). Pomper complained that when you limit contributions then politicians have to spend more time fundraising.

Mr. Berger asked Dr. Pomper about giving public funds to alternative parties. Pomper said not to give the money “until they get big.” (“Kooks” again.) Edwards agreed that moneyshould not be distributed freely, and this limitation provides huge benefits to the two old parties. His concern, however, is that once the qualification for public funds is met then how can you justify denying them to alternative parties and candidates?

At this point I spoke to the panel and asked the panel members to hear someone who actually had gone door-to-door to collect contributions for “clean elections” qualification. Lou Jasikoff spoke about the prodigious effort needed to qualify our District 14 candidate. Lou mentioned he took offense at Pomper’s “kooks” comments, which implicitly marginalized alternative parties and candidates. While Lou was speaking I distributed a flyer documenting the discrepancy between the enormous funds provided to Republicans and Democrats compared to the relative pittance provided Jason Scheurer. (Figures are $2.2 million for the 4 Republican and Democratic Assembly candidates and $23,521 for Scheurer.)

Edwards mentioned why the selection of District 14 for the clean elections trial program was an example of why we can’t trust the politicians. The Democrats picked District 14 over the Republicans who had preferred district 12. District 14 was supposed to be a closely contested election and Democrats swept it. In contrast, for District 12, the Republicans won an “unclean and unfair” (huge spending) contest. “FACE” had no obvious effect.

Berger ended the panel discussion with a presumed conclusion that all panelists could accept: “We want competitive elections with emphasis on issues and positions, but how do we do it?”