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Fair Elections Now


The Fair Elections Now Act for Congressional Campaigns

In March 2009, the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752 and H.R. 1826) was introduced in the Senate by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and in the House of Representatives by Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.). The bill would allow candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to run for office without relying on large contributions, big money bundlers, and donations from lobbyists. Participating candidates would be freed from constant fundraising.

Senator Michael Bennet and Representatives Jared Polis and Betsy Markey have all signed on as co-sponsors of the Fair Elections Now Act. Senator Mark Udall has not added his name as of Labor Day.

House members may have the chance to vote for HR 1826, the Fair Elections Now Act, in September or October. The League of Women Voters hopes constituents will urge all Colorado Representatives to support bringing the bill to the floor for a vote and to vote yes when it does come to the floor.

Background Information on the Fair Elections Now Act

Different terms, besides Fair Elections Now, have been used to describe publicly financed campaigns: Clean Elections, Fair Elections, Clean Money, Clean Campaigns, Publicly Financed Campaigns, and Voter Owned Elections.

In order to qualify for Fair Elections funding, candidates would raise a large number of small contributions from their constituents.  Contributions are limited to $100. Candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives would have to collect at least 1500 contributions from people in their district and raise a total of $50,000 in order to qualify.  For U.S. Senate Candidates, the minimum number of required contributions equals 2000 plus 500 times the number of congressional districts in the state. The total contributions for Senate candidates must equal at least 10% of the Fair Elections funding for the primary. A Colorado Senate Candidate’s minimum would be 5500 contributions, and the amount raised at least $120,000.

Qualified candidates would receive Fair Elections funding in the primary, and, if they win, in the general election at a level to run a competitive campaign. Qualified House candidates receive $900,000 in Fair Elections funding split 40% for the primary and 60% for the general election. Qualified Senate candidates receive $1.25 million plus another $250,000 per congressional district in their state. The funding is also split 40% for the primary and 60% for the general election.

Qualified candidates would also be eligible to receive additional matching Fair Elections funds if they continued to raise small donations from within their state. Donations of $100 or less, beyond the number of donations required for qualification, from in-state contributors would be matched from the Fair Elections Fund at a rate of four to one. The maximum Fair Elections funds a candidate can receive is limited to three times the initial allocation for the primary and again for the general election.

Fair Elections helps offset the high cost of media. Participating candidates receive a 20% reduction from the lowest broadcast rates, and media vouchers are allocated based on office and population.

The cost of Fair Elections for Senate races would be paid for by a small fee on large government contracts. The cost for House races would come from 10% of the revenues generated through the auction of unused broadcast spectrum.

Boulder’s Campaign Finance Ordinance, similar to FEN

In 1999, voters in Boulder passed the Campaign Finance Initiative which is very similar to the Fair Elections Now Act. Its purpose is to assure the public that (1) excessive campaign costs and large contributions do not cause corruption or the appearance of corruption in the election process; (2) large contributions will not be used to buy political access or to influence the political process; and (3) access to large amounts of money will not be a requirement for participation in the political process.

This ordinance limits contributions to a candidate from any person to $100. The city will provide matching funds up to 50% of the expenditure limit (15 cents per registered voter) to any city council candidate who (1) raises at least 10% of the expenditure limit from individual contributors (no more than $25 of each contribution may be counted toward the 10%); (2) agrees to limit expenditures to 15 cents per registered voter; (3) agrees to contribute no more than 20% of the expenditures from the candidate’s own money. The ordinance also deals with independent expenditures and enforcement.

The initiative process began in 1997 when, in a special election, Tom Eldridge as a candidate raised over $40,000. It was a wake-up call to several citizens as well as the League. A committee was formed which included Sue Anderson and Pat Johnson from the League as well as former Council member Allyn Feinberg and soon-to-be Mayor, Mark Ruzzin. In the next City Council election in November 1997, the committee asked all the candidates to sign a pledge to voluntarily limit the contributions they would accept and to limit their expenditures. Half of the candidates signed the pledge, and three of those candidates won seats on the city council.  This exercise proved that a candidate who had broad support in the community could get elected without spending a large amount of money.

The committee decided that it could not monitor campaigns forever; there would need to be a city ordinance. The next six months were spent drafting the initiative.  Pete Maysmith from CO Common Cause acted as an advisor to the committee.  With the help of members of the League of Women Voters of Boulder Valley as well as Common Cause, the required number of signatures was gathered on the initiative petition by early June. The initiative was certified to be on the ballot in November 1999; it passed with over 60% of the vote.

The resulting ordinance has been very successful. At each League-sponsored City Council candidate forum, candidates are asked if they have agreed to abide by the spending limits and why. Many candidates have agreed to the limits and like not having to spend their time raising money.  Some candidates have said that without public funds they could not have run for City Council. Because the ordinance requires candidates to demonstrate broad based community support, some candidates who would have liked to accept public funds did not qualify.  Over the years, many of the candidates who chose not to take city money for their campaigns still agreed to abide by the spending limit set by the ordinance. In the 2009 election, six of the thirteen candidates agreed to the spending limits and accepted city matching funds. Three of these six candidates were elected to the City Council.

For more information on publicly financed campaigns go to the League of Women Voters of Boulder County website, and click on Publicly Financed Campaigns.

Submitted to the Blue Line by the League of Women Voters of Boulder County, September 2010

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