New Openings for Public Financing

Former Sen. John Edwards' decision last month to accept public financing for the Democratic primaries made news because all the other leading candidates had abandoned the public system in favor of relying on private donations. But Edwards later clarified that he would not rule out accepting private funds for the general election. The reality is that the present presidential public-financing system isn't working and that all the leading Democratic contenders have endorsed fixing it.

What hasn't made headlines, but should, is substantial activity to enact new comprehensive public-financing systems in several states. Last month, for example, Democrats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives made it a priority to establish a framework for public financing of state elections for the 2008 legislative session. This was a startling development, considering that the state legislature had not even considered a public-financing bill in the last seven years.

The Granite State isn't unique. Over the last 18 months, the 15-year movement for public financing of elections has expanded on a scale that was unimaginable just a short while ago. At least 25 states are advancing significant policy reforms or implementing new public-financing programs, which provide public funding for qualified political campaigns that have met established thresholds for public support. (Public funding may come either in the form of matching grants for small donor contributions or full funding, often known as Clean Elections, at a level competitive with private campaigns.) And at the federal level, a broad coalition headed by Public Campaign, Common Cause, and Public Citizen is leading an impressive congressional public-financing campaign with bipartisan support.

How did we get here? Fueled in part by public outrage over numerous federal and state-level political scandals, the 2006 elections dramatically altered the prospects for success on a wide range of issues and ushered in renewed political will to embrace campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics reforms at the state level. At least 320 seats changed hands in the 2006 elections; nine legislative chambers switched party control, and Democrats gained six additional governorships. No one, of course, should assume that Democratic control means smooth sailing for public financing or related issues. The opposition of Democratic legislative leaders in a number of states makes that very clear. Nevertheless, this sea of change does provide opportunities to advance reform that have not been available for a very long time.

Just one year ago Iowa, Colorado, and New Hampshire were among the states with the least potential to successfully advance public financing. Now Colorado is one of three top prospects for winning reform in 2008, joining Maryland and New Mexico. New Hampshire may well join those ranks. Iowa, with West Virginia, Wisconsin, and New York, could be on board with public financing in 2009. Each of these three states saw a political upheaval in 2006. Democrats took control of both branches of the government for the first time in decades -- they have not been in power in Iowa since 1964, in Colorado since 1960, and in New Hampshire since 1874, where 95 legislative seats alone changed sides.

Many of the new state legislators are not addicted to old ways of funding campaigns, nor committed to special-interest donors who dominate the political scene. They are more open -- in some cases, eager -- to examining new ways to finance campaigns. Likewise, a number of incumbents and long-time donors are also searching for alternatives as campaign costs skyrocket. This is a key motivation for Sen. Richard Durbin, who changed his position and became a lead sponsor of the federal bill.

Furthermore, the recent Supreme Court Wisconsin Right-to-Life Decision, which effectively removed any meaningful limits on issue ads during election campaigns, struck a major blow to regulatory campaign finance reforms. Public financing appears to many the only remaining viable solution to the money-in-politics problem.

At the same time, flagship Clean Elections programs in Arizona and Maine, where laws have been in place for four election cycles, are enjoying high levels of use by candidates. In Maine, a new high of 84 percent of lawmakers in the incoming legislature were elected without taking private contributions. In Arizona, winners of six of the eight statewide offices, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, were publicly financed, as were at least half of the House members and close to a third of the Senate.

Connecticut's Clean Elections program, which will go into full effect next year, just had its first special election on Oct. 9, and candidates from both parties enthusiastically opted to participate. Advocates there, utilizing nonpartisan leadership development, outreach, and training, are encouraging underrepresented constituencies interested in running for public office to take the broadest possible advantage of the Clean Elections program. Success for Connecticut's program will be of particular consequence because, unlike Maine and Arizona, independent academics have been studying the system from its inception and monitoring its impact on improving key measures of a healthy political system, such as enabling more diverse candidates to run and win office and significantly increasing the number of competitive legislative districts.

Hundreds of candidates have been elected using Clean Elections and public-funding programs. In addition to statewide Clean Elections in Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut, public financing laws for discrete sets of offices are on the books in North Carolina; New Jersey; New York City; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Portland, Oregon. Additional programs were added earlier this year, including public funding for three statewide underticket elections in North Carolina and, with strong leadership from Gov. Bill Richardson, a new public-funding program for judicial elections in New Mexico. Were it not for a one-vote margin in the state Senate earlier this year, Maryland would have likely joined Connecticut, Arizona, and Maine with its own statewide program.

The important role of national and state public interest organizations in moving reform cannot be overstated. Many hard-working state-level groups have spent years developing a popular base for public financing. The national support for this movement is also strong. Public Campaign and Common Cause, as well as the Brennan Center, Demos, and research organizations like the National Institute on Money in State Politics have been crucial in organizing, conducting research, fighting largely successful legal battles, sharing information and strategies across states, producing policy templates, and providing staff and other in-state support at key moments.

But, despite it being unclear how these advocacy campaigns will find sustainable funding, the coming years hold a lot of possibility for campaign finance reform. An unprecedented 19 states and municipalities have some possibility of winning reform in 2008 and 2009, six or seven of these in 2008. As programs in Arizona, Maine, Connecticut, and elsewhere continue to have a positive impact on civic and democratic life, they provide an important example to others.

That said, there are major challenges to winning reform. Chiefly, most policy proposals are before state legislatures. Expecting sitting legislators to fundamentally change the system that elected them is daunting. The reality of budget deficits in many states only adds to the challenge. In Connecticut, the only state to pass comprehensive reform through the legislature, it took a Herculean effort -- including a months-long special legislative session after the governor and state treasurer were sent to prison -- to enact Clean Elections.

Success for these campaigns in the next two years will require legislative leadership, increased attention from media and bloggers, and new resources. Encouraging signs emerged in recent weeks with new donors coming forward, bloggers in New Mexico rallying to this and related issues, and breakthroughs in securing key support in Colorado. Such steady progress may make it possible to win in a number of states in the near term and, and in so doing, make achieving public financing across the country seem truly attainable.