Asbury Park Press

Clean Elections Project Needs Time To Succeed

Asbury Park Press — Wednesday, July 6, 2005

BY WILLIAM E. SCHLUTER

On June 27, political history was made in New Jersey. That's the day the chairs of the Democratic State Committee and the Republican State Committee each designated a district to participate in the New Jersey Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project, also known as NJFACE. This date will also mark the start of a change in the system for electing legislative candidates in this state, as well as people's attitude toward that system.

The New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission is a nine-member bipartisan group responsible for evaluating the pilot project, assessing its successes and failures and reporting back to the Legislature. All of the commissioners are pleased the project is off to a good start.

We are also concerned by recent articles in the Asbury Park Press and other publications in which people criticized the project's fairness and viability. According to these articles, some potential pilot project candidates expressed support for the project while other candidates questioned whether the public funding it promises will be sufficient to ensure the elections are competitive and fair. Also questioned was the difficulty of meeting the standards to qualify as a participant.

Readers need to remember a few things about the current electoral process in New Jersey. Many residents believe that the private financing of campaigns for legislative office allows individuals and committees who contribute large amounts of money to have an undue influence on the process. There is also the perception (indeed, the reality) that vast differences exist in the financial resources available to candidates vying for the same office, and that the candidate with the superior war chest is certain to win election.

The perpetuation of such beliefs erodes public confidence in the democratic process and democratic institutions, leaving much of the electorate questioning whether their elected officials are accountable to the public or to their major contributors.

The NJFACE pilot project is the first step toward countering this erosion in confidence. It is based on the belief that a campaign finance system for legislative office that balances financial resources among candidates and utilizes only "clean money" will promote competition, restore public confidence and strengthen democracy. The term "clean money" describes campaigns that are publicly funded rather than those funded by private contributions and personal wealth.

The benefits from such a system are manifold. Elections will be open to many who had never had access before, particularly women, minorities and those with modest financial resources. It will enable candidates to curb the escalating cost of elections and will free elected officials to focus on the essential task of serving their constituents.

Unfortunately, recent newspaper accounts are drawing conclusions before the experiment has moved much past its first steps. These comments are largely speculative, based more on possible concerns than on fact.

It is important to note that the pilot project, while new to New Jersey, is based on similar programs established in Maine and Arizona that have proven successful. A properly structured clean elections program can be successful in this state as well.

Three points need to be emphasized:

NJFACE is a pilot project. It is experimental. The political professionals and the public should give it every chance to unfold as provided by law. Negative speculation at this time will only harm its chance to succeed and will confuse and polarize the public and the Legislature, which will need to decide whether to expand the project to all Senate and Assembly districts for 2007 and thereafter.

It is too late to amend the law that created the project. Regulations now being promulgated are designed to implement the law that created the project and will guide its participants this year. Besides, changing the rules of the project now, even if changes were possible, would be unfair to participants who agreed to participate under the original law.

The Clean Elections Commission is not a partisan body but a bipartisan commission, made up of three elected or former elected Democratic Party members, four elected or former elected Republican Party members and two individuals who have not held elective office. We will carry out our responsibilities objectively and with total transparency.

Concerns about the pilot project are understandable. This is why the commission held public hearings in March, April and June to which the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the state's political establishment and members of the public were invited. Our Web site – www.njleg.state.nj.us/committees/njcleanelec.asp – is always open to the public as will be all future Clean Elections Commission meetings.

After the November election, the commission will hold at least three public hearings in different parts of the state to receive testimony regarding all aspects of the pilot project experience in order to draft a report to the Legislature.

Positive and constructive participation in this experiment is welcomed, for it will move us toward the goal of restoring the public confidence in government and achieving fair and clean elections in New Jersey.

William E. Schluter, a former Republican state senator from Pennington, is chairman of the New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission. The other commission members joined in issuing this commentary.

Top Top | NJCA Homepage | NJCA in the News