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Column: A step toward solving campaign finance corruption



For the Valley News
Monday, March 04, 2019

The two of us — one a Republican, the other a Democrat, each with a fair amount of experience in New Hampshire politics — don’t see eye to eye on many issues. But here is something big we agree on: The way political campaigns are funded distorts markets, increases government waste, and freezes social and economic mobility. When candidates depend on big money from a tiny number of sources, as they do today, policy inevitably favors those who contribute the most. Powerful special interests benefit at the expense of everyday citizens.

There is another big thing we agree on: a solution to the problem.

Simply put, we need a campaign finance system in which candidates can rely on small contributions from many in-district donors instead of large contributions from a few from out of state. And we need this system not just in Washington but right here in New Hampshire. The very human tendency of politicians to reward those who help them the most is no different here than in D.C.

Senate Bill 304 — the Voter-Owned Elections Act — which is now being considered by the New Hampshire Senate, would create exactly this type of system. The system is 100 percent voluntary. Participating candidates for governor and Executive Council (and, with hope, expanding to state Senate races in the future) must agree not to accept aggregate private contributions from any one donor greater than $125 (for Executive Council) and $250 (for governor) per election. Contributions from businesses, unions and lobbyists are prohibited. There are strict limits on out-of-state contributions and personal funds. In addition, participants must publicly disavow support from outside spending groups — the organizations that, working “independently” of the campaigns, are responsible for so many of the sleazy attack ads we see on TV and in mailings and flyers distributed door-to-door.

Not just any candidate can qualify. To become eligible for the benefits of the voter-owned elections system, candidates must prove they have the work ethic and public support to mount a viable campaign by raising a threshold number of small, private contributions from registered voters residing within their district.

And those benefits? First and foremost, funding. Limiting one’s campaign to strictly small-dollar contributions is a noble gesture, but it handicaps a candidate running against an unconstrained, nonparticipating candidate. To make up the difference, qualifying candidates are eligible to receive “voter dollars.” These come in the form of 25-dollar certificates distributed to registered voters in election years. Voters wishing to do so may contribute up to four certificates to any participating candidates. If those candidates win their primary contests, they also qualify for general election campaigns grants.

There is another, non-monetary benefit. Today, with Super PACs, dark money and campaigns so often bankrolled by out-of-state money, many voters have grown cynical. They are looking for change, and candidates who qualify for voter-owned elections funds — who don’t just talk about the evils of big-donor contributions but are sworn to forego them — are a refreshing alternative. For proof of the political advantage of running “cleaner” campaigns, look no further than the success of 2018 congressional candidates who refused contributions from corporate PACs.

Impact on candidates

Candidates participating in the voter-owned elections system won’t get a pass on fundraising. But their style of fundraising will be different because, with voter dollars, every voter is now a potential campaign contributor. Instead of spending hours “dialing for dollars,” candidates will be talking with constituents, listening to their concerns, making their case. They can start from scratch — without a war chest, a famous name or powerful connections. It’s a kind of campaigning that used to be the norm in New Hampshire, a kind that should appeal to a larger pool of more diverse candidates than we see today.

Impact on voters

With voter dollars, citizens who had never considered contributing to campaigns will now have that chance. As potential donors, they will receive more attention from candidates than ever before and will have reason to seek out those candidates they want to represent them. A citizenry empowered in this way becomes an engaged citizenry, and government becomes accountable to the people.

Impact of officeholders

When those in office no longer depend on special interest money, they are freed to act in the broad public interest. They can concentrate on what’s best locally, not what’s demanded by outside interests. They are driven by their conscience and the views of their constituents, influenced more by the power of arguments, less by the power of pocketbooks.

Funding voter-owned elections

Current estimates peg the cost of voter-owned elections at about $3.2 million annually. That translates to $3.20 per registered voter — not a huge price considering the benefits. A portion of that will come from (fully tax-deductible) private donations.

SB 304 requires no taxpayer money. In the long run, the system will more than pay for itself by making it politically possible to close tax loopholes and curb pork-barrel spending.

The Voter-Owned Elections Act has deep roots. The concept results from years of hard work by many dedicated people. SB 304 was crafted with the help of a bipartisan group of New Hampshire legislators with guidance from Concord-based Open Democracy Action and input from the Campaign Legal Center, the Brennan Center for Justice and Every Voice. SB 304 is a measured but promising first step we can take toward fixing our broken and corrupt campaign finance system.

You can help by calling New Hampshire senators about the bill. You can find their phone numbers at http://gencourt.state.nh.us. If you get an assistant or answering machine, state your position and ask that your call be returned. And thank you for raising your voice for voter-owned government.

State Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, serves District 5 in the New Hampshire Senate and is the prime sponsor of SB 304. Jim Rubens, a Republican from Hanover, is former District 5 state senator and strongly supports SB 304.