The Times, Trenton

Not So Fair

The Times of Trenton — Friday, July 27, 2007

OPINION ARTICLE

BY GREGG EDWARDS AND SEAN PARNELL

If New Jersey's laws had to be labeled honestly, then the "Fair and Clean Elections Act" would have to be called the "Anti- Competition Law" or the "Protect the Incumbents Act." The law has little to do with making election campaigns fair or clean. It's mostly about preserving the status quo and there are some things about the status quo that aren't worth preserving.

True political reform requires, among other things, more electoral competition. The Fair and Clean Elections Act promotes just the opposite.

Under the law, candidates in three designated legislative districts may opt to receive taxpayer funding for their campaigns, provided that they meet certain qualifications. (District 14, which includes the Mercer County townships of Hamilton, Washington and West Windsor, is one of the designated districts.) It is a modified version of a program that operated in the 2005 Assembly elections.

The original experiment was in spired by similar laws in Arizona and Maine. Taxpayer-funded campaigns in those states have not produced the desired effects. In Maine, incumbents are re-elected at the same rate as they were be fore taxpayer funding. In Arizona, since taxpayer funding was initiated the incumbent re-election rate actually has increased and there are fewer candidates running for the Legislature.

Why, then, have these programs persisted? Because advocates for taxpayer subsidies for politicians conveniently changed their criteria for success. To claim success, they point only to the number of candi dates who participate in government financing schemes. Given the lofty rhetoric used to justify public financing of political campaigns, that criterion seems woefully meager. Even by that weak standard, the 2005 New Jersey program was a failure. Only two of the 10 eligible candidates qualified to receive taxpayer funding. The two were running mates who were heavily favored to win the election, which they did. This predicted outcome was subsidized with tax dollars.

In spite of this dismal performance, the Legislature renewed the program this year, arguing that the new qualification requirements were less onerous.

But tinkering with the qualifica tion requirements won't overcome the program's fundamental flaws. First, the program favors incumbents. Typically, for a challenger to defeat an incumbent he or she must outspend his or her oppo nent. Money helps to neutralize the built-in advantages of incumbency. Capping campaign expenditures, as public financing laws do, almost guarantees the incumbent's re- election.

Second, the program does little to reduce the influence of special- interest groups. These groups are well-suited to assist candidates to solicit the large number of $10 contributions that the candidates must raise in order to qualify for taxpayer funding. For example, in Arizona's 2002 gubernatorial election, the labor unions raised one- quarter of the small dollar contributions necessary for one of the candidates to qualify for public funds.

Also, the program turns a blind eye to the role that money plays outside of the traditional campaign season. When they're not participating in taxpayer-funded elections, incumbents can continue to raise and spend money. They use that money to improve their re- election chances and to make contributions to legislative colleagues and to challenger candidates being promoted by their own party's leadership.

Finally, the process by which the only politically competitive district was selected defeated the law's very purpose. It favored the choice of the party that currently controls the Legislature. So much for fairness. Then again, no one should be surprised that a process designed by the party that pos sesses power would do anything to diminish that party's authority.

There are more effective ways to make elections more competitive. Here are two:

Change the constitutional process for drawing legislative districts to make it more difficult for the map writers to create "gerrymandered," or safe, districts. Not every district can be made truly competitive, but it's certainly possible to have more competitive districts than the number that exists today.

Diffuse the concentration of political power. The recently passed ban on dual-office holding will dif fuse power. The next step is to prohibit elected officials from holding other public employment positions.

Not only will these initiatives deliver greater competition and more accountability to the voters, they do it without costing the taxpayers a dime.

Gregg M. Edwards is the president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, an independent nonprofit organization that addresses public policy issues facing New Jersey. Sean Parnell is president of the Center for Competitive Politics, an Arlington, Va., nonpartisan organization that promotes First Amendment political rights for all citizens.

Copyright 2007 The Times of Trenton

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