Fair elections – a bipartisan boon

What do Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan have in common?  It’s more than being two-term presidents of the United States.  The common thread was how they got there—public financing opened the door to public office for both when they were long-shots lacking the cash on hand of better known or richer rivals.  Master communicators—Reagan and Clinton-- made their case for how they would reshape the country directly to the American voter.  Public financing left the choice of their nominations squarely in the hands of voters, instead in the hands of rich donors.

Too often, we see American elections through the prism of money.  Months before federal elections, TV commentary becomes obsessed with what’s known as the “money primary.”  The received wisdom is that the candidate with the early fundraising lead is likely to win come November and that candidates without a war chest or rich friends are hopeless and unelectable.  Too frequently, we let money decide an election long before the voters make it to the ballot box or before an unknown candidate can share her new policy ideas with the voters.

The money primary is likely to take a new and pernicious twist in future elections thanks to the Supreme Court case named Citizens United.  Now that corporations can spend an unlimited amount of corporate treasury funds to support or oppose a candidate, we may have corporations acting as king makers.  Corporations could buy bill boards in Times Square in favor of a business-friendly incumbent or they could run Super Bowl ads against an insurgent candidate who promised fundamental change.

This post-Citizens United corporate spending is all “independent” of the candidates, but what candidate will likely forget a $100,000 ad buy done for his benefit?  Natural human gratitude is enough to tilt policy towards a corporate wish list.  This new corporate spending also holds the potential to narrow the candidate field.  Once it is clear that the big money is behind a particular candidate, opponents may give up, leaving voters with fewer and fewer options.

Even big political careers may need a jump start.  How do we give lesser known candidates for Congress across the political spectrum the same fighting chance to build a viable candidacy that Reagan and Clinton had?  We provide public dollars to congressional candidates who have demonstrated support from their constituents.  The Fair Elections Now Act (“Fair Elections”) would do just that.  It would be the first big advance in expanding democracy at the federal level since the post-Watergate reforms which set up the presidential public financing system in the first place.  Fair Elections will put the demos back in our democracy.

Fair Elections, like the presidential public financing system, is a fully constitutional way to expand the public discourse and return voters-- instead of the money men—to their rightful role as stars in our democratic process.  Fortunately, the Fair Elections bill will be considered by the Committee on House Administration on Sept. 23, 2010.  After the Committee votes on the bill, it should be placed on the floor for a vote by the full House, and Congress needs move expeditiously to enact Fair Elections this year.

America needs a healthy variety of candidates both left and right to be able to run credible campaigns for Congress.  But we stand at a cross roads.  Down one path, the new corporate money is coming along with many strings attached.  Down the other path are more candidates, more choices for voters, more democracy and Fair Elections.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and adjunct professor of Constitutional Law at Rutgers University.

http://www.brennancenter.org/