Asbury Park Press

Rule Eased For Donors To 'Clean' Campaigns

Asbury Park Press — Friday, August 26, 2005

BY GREGORY J. VOLPE
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON — Voters in two legislative districts participating in a pilot program designed to provide public funds to qualified candidates can soon donate online, the state election law panel ruled Thursday.

Voters will be allowed to use debit cards ... as long as they deduct directly from a bank account ... to donate to a specific candidate, under an emergency ruling issued by the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Donations can be made through a Web site being created by the Department of the Treasury, which could not say when it will be running.

The move is designed to help 10 candidates vying for seats in the two so-called "clean election'' districts who have struggled under the new program's rules, which require a check or money order and detailed information about each donor.

The program, being run in the 6th and 13th legislative districts, requires candidates to get 1,000 $5 checks and 500 $30 checks by Sept. 7 to get state grants of $59,175 for their campaigns. The program aims to diminish the influence of special-interest money in politics.

"A check card operates the same way as check, so the commission had no problem. It's the functional equivalent of a check,'' explained Frederick Herrmann, ELEC's executive director.

"That's a great idea. I wish it happened sooner,'' said Michael Dasaro, a Democrat running in the 13th District, which covers nine municipalities in Monmouth and Middlesex counties. "It is encouraging to see that ELEC and the Citizens' (Clean Elections) Commission is listening to the candidates and taking the appropriate steps.''

The move may be too late to help with the impending Sept. 7 deadline for each candidate to finish getting the 1,500 donations.

"It's very late in the process now, so how much impact it will have is yet to be seen,'' said Assemblyman Samuel D. Thompson, R-Monmouth. "But if they do it again, it will make it more convenient for people to make their donations.''

Thompson said his campaign has had to return 25 percent of the donations it has received because people donated more than the specified $5 or $30, filed incomplete forms or wrote checks to the candidates instead of the clean elections fund.

None of the candidates interviewed Thursday could or would say how many qualifying donations they've received so far.

"We're the pioneers"

"Had it been done two months ago, it could have made a big difference,'' William Flynn, a Democrat running in the 13th District, said. "But we're the pioneers, so whatever mistakes made in this program will be rectified in the next cycle.''

The pilot program is scheduled to expand to four districts in the 2007 elections.

Flynn said a rally scheduled today

Green Party candidates in the 13th District were less enthused about the ruling, saying the threshold of donations is too high ... especially for third-party candidates who have to meet the same requirements but would get only half the grant.

"That's good, I guess,'' candidate Mike Hall said of ELEC's ruling. "Whether that will enable all the candidates to meet the threshold, we'll just have to see.''

Added his running mate, Greg Orr: "I think the program's designed to fail. It's designed to say, "We tried clean money in New Jersey and it failed.',''

In the 6th District, Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, D-Camden, and his running mate, Pamela Rosen Lampitt, issued a prepared statement lauding the decision.

"Permitting the use of e-checks and check cards will assist all candidates in their efforts to qualify for public financing before the Sept. 7 deadline,'' Greenwald said. "In today's checkless society, permitting voters to use technologically advanced payment methods makes common sense.''

Jeff Kasko, campaign manager for Republican challengers Marc Fleischner and JoAnn Gurenlian, was surprised by the news, but he said it's good if it makes it easier for people.

"It's very interesting, with two weeks to go, they change the rules at the end,'' he said. "I think it will be helpful, but I haven't talked to the candidates yet. We still have to assess the situation to see how it can help.''

No start-up date

Treasury Department spokesman Tom Vincz said the department is working on the Web site, which will allow donations similar to online tax payments, but could not give a launch date.

Donors must be registered to vote in the district in which they donate. Officials said the burden of proof that a donor is eligible is on the candidates. Candidates will get a report from the Treasury Department to see how many donations they have received.

"Everybody wants this program to work, and this will help it to work,'' said former state Sen. William E. Schluter, chairman of the clean elections commission.

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