Publicly funded elections put voters back in charge
IN the not-too-distant past the United States was building a bridge to the 21st century, yet five years into the new millennium our country is as divided as it has ever been. Whether the issue be the war on terrorism, abortion, health care or Social Security, one would be hard pressed to find consensus in any town in America. However, there is one issue that most Americans agree on. The issue of corruption, access and money in the political process is a sickness that transcends party lines, race and religion.
The unfolding scandal in Washington involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Speaker Tom Delay, as well as Hawaii's own less-than-stellar alumni of shady public figures, is symptomatic of a process that is failing to create fair and just policies that truly empower communities. The notion that a candidate can receive large amounts of campaign funds from industry and other special interests and still act in the best interest of the community is laughable. There is a painfully obvious conflict of interest when a candidate decides to take money from a source that has no stake in the health and prosperity of the community. Of course, not all lawmakers are criminals. On the contrary, most are intelligent and well intentioned; it is the current environment that fosters corruption and undue access that needs to be remedied.
On the surface, traditional campaign finance reform sounds like such a remedy, but dig a little deeper and you find that reform laws have done nothing to address the dilemma of big money in politics or to boost voter turnout. All they have done is make an already inefficient and confusing system more inefficient and more confusing. Catching the bad guys is important, but without real alternatives there is no real remedy.
LUCKILY, an exciting new way of running elections is beginning to take hold across the country, and judging by its success so far, it promises to be the most effective solution offered to date to address big money in politics. Arizona, Maine, and just this year, Connecticut have adopted a public funding option for candidates running for office. The program is simple: By showing a high level of community support and agreeing not to use any private money, candidates can run a competitive campaign without having to accept money from large contributors outside the community. The result is more community participation, higher voter turnout and better public policies. Public funding bills that could bring similar results to Hawaii are pending in the Legislature.
This public funding method has changed politics in both Arizona and Maine for the better, so much so that Arizona is seeing a staggering 67 percent increase in voter turnout since its inception. Furthermore, the percentage of highest spenders winning elections has gone from 79 percent before public funding to just 2 percent since, showing without a doubt that public funding takes the power of money out of campaigning and returns it to the strength of ideas. More minorities and women are running and winning using public funding, because it naturally gives voice to populations and communities that have been underrepresented in the past. It has freed up lawmakers from the money-chase and has allowed them the opportunity to become better community advocates. In Maine, lawmakers have rolled back industry tax credits, created the most progressive prescription drug program in the country and are moving toward universal healthcare for all citizens.
The cost to the state of Hawaii to create a public funding option is minimal compared to what it can do to repair our ailing political climate. Five dollars per taxpayer per year will be more then enough to finance this revolutionary program. For less than it costs for a combo meal at your favorite fast-food joint, you can change the face of politics in Hawaii forever.
John J. Higgins is a member of Voter Owned Elections Hawaii.