CLEAN ELECTIONS PROGRAM IN NEED OF REFORM

By DAVID P. REBOVICH Recent polls have shown that New Jerseyans think that multi-millionaire, self-financed candidates for governor are less likely to be influenced by interest groups. In the meantime, many residents complain that having their names and telephone numbers on the national and state “Do Not Call” lists does not prevent political candidates or parties from bothering them with campaign messages or requests for support. In addition, many folks privately admit that while they may praise “door to door” campaigning in principle, when a candidate rings their bell they regard it as another irritating intrusion on their private lives. Looking back, these various sentiments provided clues that New Jersey’s pilot program to provide public funding for assembly campaigns in two districts this year would have problems. The new Fair and Clean Elections Law would have the state give money to assembly candidates in the two legislative districts if each candidate received 1,000 campaign donations of $5 and 500 donations of $30 from registered voters living in their districts. If the candidates reached the $20,000 threshold, they would each receive a modest sum from the state and agree not to spent more than that in the general election campaign. Equal spending would presumably make the assembly races more competitive. And, limiting spending – this year 13th district candidates would have received only $59,175 each, while the winners spent over $400,000 two years ago – would require the candidates to run grass-roots as opposed to media-centered campaigns. Unfortunately, neither the Democratic nor Republican candidates in the 13th district could satisfy the fund-raising requirements. In the other pilot district, the 6th in south Jersey, only the Democrats met the standards. The advocates of the Fair and Clean Elections Law on both sides of the aisle and in the general public are understandably disappointed. So too are good government advocates and those folks, and there are many in the Garden State, who believe that private money has had a pernicious effect on the state’s politics. In their view the need to raise large sums of money for campaigns underlies not just some of the well-publicized scandals and ruined political careers that have garnered headlines the last few years. It has also prevented elected officials from dealing effectively with policy problems that concern average citizens. The Fair and Clean Elections Law endeavors to address both of these matters. By making public funding available for legislative candidates, the law would make candidates and officeholders less dependent on private donors for support and less inclined to put the interests of those donors ahead of their constituents’ needs or those of the entire state. It would also free up candidates to devote more time to solicit citizens’ ideas about public policy, not their money, and to discuss the issues. Similarly, incumbents could be less concerned about fund-raising and could therefore devote more time to lawmaking. As such passage of this legislation was thought to be the first step to significant political reform in New Jersey. Not only would legislative candidates no longer be beholden to big campaign donors, they would require to seek out more citizens in their district, talk to those folks about their concerns, and win their support in the form of $5 or $30 donations. Now that sounds like the kind of substantive, grass-roots politics that citizens have clamored for forever. But as six of the eight assembly candidates in the two pilot districts discovered, clamoring is one thing and participating in the process is another. The candidates had difficulty convincing 1,500 people to donate to their campaigns at a time – the summer months – when many citizens frankly are not thinking about the fall’s elections. Another problem was that the candidates could not accept cash donations and had to have donors write out a check and then fill out the appropriate paperwork for their contributions. No wonder so many said, “See you later.” Some candidates, including the Democrats in the 6th district who did meet the law’s threshold, found themselves seeking donations from county and municipal organization members and people belonging to various groups that endorsed them. It’s doubtful that this is what the reformers had in mind when they crafted the legislation. Even with the use of this tactic and a two week extension in the deadline for meeting the fund-raising requirements, only two candidates qualified for public funding. Where does the program go from here? Undoubtedly the Fair and Clean Elections plan needs to be reformed. Campaign staffers in the pilot districts and editorial writers from around the state have made some common sense suggestions for reform. Cash donations, not just checks, should be permitted. Donors should also be able to give in amounts other than $5 and $30. And, perhaps 1,500 individual donors are too many for each candidate to realistically solicit in the allotted time frame. It also is clear that the program itself needs to be better publicized by the state’s media in news stories and in public service announcements. Whether any of this will mean that more citizens will jump on the reform bandwagon and donate to candidates participating in the program remains to be seen. Many New Jerseyans seem to prefer that someone else pay for campaigns that have become so negative. But kicking in $5 to $30 to help get publicly financed campaigns in your legislative district is not asking too much. Nonetheless, a political reality in New Jersey is that many voters get their political information from television, radio and newspaper ads and, due to their busy lives and desire for privacy, seem to like it that way. This makes campaigning, even for legislative offices, very expensive here. Perhaps the legislature would want to consider upping the amount of money it provides candidates through public financing so that those candidates will feel that they can run an adequate media campaign to go along with more face-to-face voter contact activities. This may make the candidates and their supporters in pilot districts in 2007 and beyond more motivated to make the reform plan work. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.

CLEAN ELECTIONS PROGRAM IN NEED OF REFORM