There’s a huge price to pay, when candidates engage in the arduous task of keenly wooing monetary commitments from the one percent of wealthy Americans who do the vast majority of the contributing; a price that has long been argued as being at the expense of what’s in the best interest of “Joe and Jane” Public.
As a controversial alternative to the “paper money-chase” that haunts every election, a small number of charter cities and states have created programs to publicly finance candidates for certain local offices. None of these states include California, which banned public funding of political campaigns.
However, Proposition 15 (also called the California Fair Elections Act) on the June 8 ballot is primed to turn this 26-year-old ban upside down.
If it passes, the measure would create a voluntary system of public campaign financing, beginning with the Secretary of State races in 2014 and 2018. Candidates who agree to limitations on spending and private contributions would receive a base level of funding of $1 million for the primary and an additional $1.3 million for the general election. Under this new law, candidates facing privately-financed opponents or attacks from independent expenditure groups could also receive millions in additional matching funds.
To qualify, a candidate would have to acquire signatures and $5 contributions from 7,500 registered voters, with the proceeds being deposited into a newly created Fair Elections Fund.
The greater portion of the funding for candidates would come from a $350 annual fee paid by California’s 4,300 registered lobbyists and their employers. The fee would generate roughly $6 million every four-year election cycle, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. Currently, lobbyists pay $12.50 per year to register with the state, while their employers pay nothing.
Proponents acknowledge that Proposition 15 does not fully resolve the recurring issue of outlandish spending and the outsized influence of special interest groups, but say it’s a promising start.
“I think that one of the benefits of providing public financing programs to political campaigns is it makes it easier for people who aren’t personally wealthy and/or well connected to run for office,” said Derek Cressman, a spokesman for the Yes on Prop. 15 campaign, who also argues that greedy legislators are cutting public services, and failing to address the concerns of ordinary voters.
“What we’ve seen in other states that have adopted these programs, is an increase in the number of people of color running for office and an increase in the number of young people running for office. I think that’s a good thing for our democracy.”
Opponents say Proposition 15 does little to limit the advantage of wealthy candidates, nor does it guarantee a certain type of candidate will be elected.
“Whenever you change the system, it’s a big unknown right?” asked James Sutton, a professor at Hastings Law School. “There’s no assurance that people who are pro-parks or pro-schools will get elected. Clearly, proponents of this measure have some partisan agenda,” he added.
Sutton also questions the notion that public financing is needed to put a counterweight on the political balance of power that has traditionally leaned in favor of Caucasians.
“Anyone who claims that Prop. 15 is going to help African-Americans, because they can’t raise the kind of money that other candidates can raise should look at President Obama, who raised more money than anyone’s ever raised in history,” he said passionately. “Think of Mark Ridley Thomas, Bernard Parks, Diane Watson and Mayor Bradley for Christ’s sake. These are incredibly popular candidates, who had no problem raising the money they needed.”