Asbury Park Press

State's Clean Elections Law Unfair To Third Parties

Asbury Park Press — Tuesday, September 20, 2005

BY MIKE HALL
AND GREG ORR

Few would disagree that New Jersey is in dire need of a Clean Elections law to remove corrupt money from politics. The Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project now under way in Legislative Districts 6 and 13 represents such a possibility, but only if key provisions are overhauled.

The Green Party has long advocated for a Clean Elections law. Based on the successful programs of Maine and Arizona, Green Party Assemblyman Matt Ahearn of Bergen County introduced New Jersey's first such bill (A-3833) in June 2003. Unfortunately, rather than building upon this proven approach to clean and open democracy, the Legislature has instead created a Frankenstein program.

Most onerous are the criteria used to qualify a candidate for clean campaign funding. In Arizona, an Assembly candidate is given eight months to collect 210 contributions of $5 each. Maine requires only 50 contributions of $5. Did the New Jersey Legislature take a similar approach? Hardly. It raised the bar to a staggering 1,500 contributions, 500 of which must be at a new $30 level. For the joint campaign of two Assembly candidates, this means raising 3,000 contributions, totaling $40,000 – all in a period shortened to just nine weeks. Clearly, instead of encouraging clean elections, our Legislature has created an effective barrier.

Candidates who make the heroic attempt to qualify, but fall short by any amount, receive no funding whatsoever, since all of these contributions go to the Clean Elections Fund. Making the attempt becomes a risky campaign decision, even for major party candidates assisted by their party machines. For independent and third-party candidates, the extreme qualifying criteria effectively ensure their exclusion.

Leaving nothing to chance, the New Jersey Legislature also created a blatantly unfair "just in case" provision. Should a third-party candidate manage to qualify, they receive no more than half of the public funding allocated to major party candidates. Equally bizarre is that when the third-party candidates fall short of qualifying or do not participate, their allocation is handed over to the (presumably) major party candidates. That's a convenient way to channel more money to the major party candidates should anyone challenge their power.

The extreme qualifying criteria created by our Legislature has threatened the very fate of the Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project. On Aug. 31, with the qualifying deadline less than a week away, acting Gov. Codey issued an executive order to extend the deadline by two weeks. But this last-minute bandage was not enough to save the Democratic Assembly candidates in the 13th District, who have since thrown in the towel to pursue traditional campaign funding – one more indication of the deep flaws that must be rectified.

Before a Clean Elections law is rolled out across the state, New Jersey citizens will need to voice their support for a program that fairly encourages the participation of all candidates. A return to the approach offered by the original 2003 Green Party bill would provide a real solution. After all, why should New Jersey settle for less than what has already been accomplished in Maine and Arizona?

Mike Hall and Greg Orr are the Green Party candidates for Assembly in the 13th Legislative District, which includes parts of Monmouth and Middlesex counties.

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