The Times, Trenton

Keep Clean Elections Alive

The Times of Trenton — Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Mixing big money and elections has bad results. It invites the perception, and too often the reality, that elected officials give favorable treatment to generous contributors. And it keeps out a lot of folks who could serve with distinc tion but lack the resources to run competitive races.

Clean Elections — the public funding of campaigns — minimizes these effects. "Clean" candidates qualify for subsidy by raising a threshold amount in small contributions, usually $5 or $10, forgoing other private gifts, and agreeing to limit their campaign spending. This opens the door to a larger and more diverse field, and relieves the winners of any sense of obliga tion to wealthy private donors.

The system has worked well in six states, and interest is strong at the federal level. Unfortunately, efforts to bring it to New Jersey have come to a halt.

New Jersey experimented with Clean Elections in a handful of legislative races in 2005 and 2007. Among last year's clean candidates was Pat Walsh, D-Mount Olive, who was enthusiastic, even though he lost his 24th District Assembly contest. "I know the program worked because I received calls from many special-interest groups trying to donate to me," he told The Star-Ledger. "They were upset when I refused their money. ... In my district ... voter turnout rose 40 percent due to Clean Elections. Also, in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 3 to 1, I lost by only a 2-to-1 margin, thanks in large part to the program."

Reformers were poised to renew and expand Clean Elections for next year's Assembly races when Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Bellmawr, its chief advocate, abruptly withdrew his bill, saying a "time-out" was needed because a pair of federal court decisions had jeopardized a key provision of Clean Elections known as rescue money. But numerous election- law experts argued the contrary: that rescue money was in no constitutional danger and that the bill could have been re vised to resolve any uncertain ties.

The states with Clean Elections programs forged ahead, and their voters on Nov. 4 increased the number of officeholders who ran with public financing. In Maine, they will comprise 85 percent of the legislature next year; in Connecticut, 81 percent; in Arizona, 54 percent. Clean Elections win ners included Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers, men and women, whites and racial minorities, old and young.

New Jersey should be standing with these progressive states. Drawing on their experience, the Legislature should plan a system for the 2011 elections that includes primaries and corrects other weaknesses revealed by the previous pilot programs.

Some argue that New Jersey can't afford Clean Elections, especially in tough economic times. We say: New Jersey can't afford — especially in tough economic times — to continue electing officeholders who are obligated to anyone but the voters.

Copyright 2008 The Times of Trenton

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