Clean elections are within Hawai'i's reach
By John Higgins
More than 100 years ago, a witty politician quipped, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money ... and I can't remember the second."
More than $4 billion was given to state and federal candidates during the 2004 election. Sadly, a huge portion of these "contributions" came from special interests pushing agendas that benefit them, not ordinary citizens.
Voters tell us that they want a government they can trust, filled with elected officials who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, who represent their needs and make policies that benefit all people, not just big industries or single-issue groups.
Yet, despite a long history of campaign reform laws, special interests find clever ways to buy their way into elections. No wonder so many voters are cynical, or don't vote. But the people of Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, West Virginia and Connecticut have enacted a new and successful method that limits the influence of special-interest money on elected officials.
Voters in Maine in 1998 and Arizona in 2000 established a unique system that allows all legitimate statewide candidates to receive adequate amounts of public funds to run on and win. They call it "clean money, clean elections."
In Arizona in 2002, nine out of 11 statewide elected officials, including the attorney general and members of a powerful regulatory commission, ran on public funds only. Janet Napolitano became the first governor to be elected under the clean elections system.
After three election cycles, Maine's clean elections public funding program is so successful and popular that by 2004, almost 80 percent of the candidates for the Legislature ran without corporate, special-interest or private donations. Voters show at the polls they want to be listened to, and nearly three-fourths of their representatives are now free from taking money from the insurance, pharmaceutical, oil, forest and chemical industries to fund their campaigns. And that is why Maine could pass legislation that has been blocked in almost every other state, such as Maine's low cost "Rx" prescription bill, extended healthcare coverage and a broad approach to removing mercury and arsenic from their environment. Taking control of their political system costs less than $2 per eligible voter per year.
Hawai'i's own clean elections coalition is once again seeking to enact a comprehensive public funding bill similar to Maine's and Arizona's laws. This voluntary program would start in 2008 for candidates to the state House of Representatives. To qualify, candidates would have to collect $5 contributions from 200 registered voters living inside their districts. Candidates would then agree to accept no private donations and abide by strict spending limits in return for receiving an adequate amount of public funds to run competitive campaigns.
Voter-owned elections shift the focus from slick color mail-outs and costly TV ads to door-to-door campaigning and serious debates about solutions to pressing problems. This alternative to the present system would allow community activists and candidates the option of running for office without going into debt or getting tangled in the obligations that come from taking campaign gifts.
The problem lies in the system as a whole, not in our individual legislators, most of whom run for office wanting to serve their neighbors and community.
We have good people caught in a bad system, and many would like to drop out of the money chase. As policymakers elected with public funds, they would be free to exercise their judgment based upon the broad public interest, rather than to have the debate dictated by contributors with narrow interest.
John Higgins is legislative liaison for Hawai'i Clean Elections. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.