Report: Reclaiming Our Democracy

Breaking Free With Fair Elections

Released by: U.S. PIRG

Fair Elections – systems with full public financing of elections – would help improve the openness, honesty, and accountability of government. They would also free public officials to respond to the interests of voters without worrying about hurting their ability to raise money from deep-pocketed donors.

Most observers would agree that money plays far too large a role in elections – and that politicians spend too much time fundraising, detracting from the time they spend developing good public policy.

If we want to protect the environment, design a better health care system or improve our energy policy, we need a political system that encourages lawmakers to listen more to voters than to oil and gas companies, pharmaceutical giants and other industries.

Fair Elections are a bold solution to the problem of money in politics. Three states – Maine, Connecticut and Arizona – have instituted the systems for statewide and legislative elections. Publicly financed elections for some public offices, including judgeships, exist in four additional states, and the solution has been implemented in two major cities. Other states, such as Maryland, are actively considering similar proposals for their state elections.

The systems work. Public funding systems in the states today draw rave reviews from lawmakers while producing more diverse fields of candidates. They also provide voters with immediate return on their small investment of faith and money: lawmakers who run under the systems spend significantly less time raising money than those who do not, giving them more time to do the work of the people.

This momentum is now spreading to Washington. Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to provide full public financing for congressional elections.

The proposed congressional systems and those in effect in the states are variations on a theme. They require that candidates agree to accept little private money and to abide by
spending limits. In exchange, candidates with demonstrated support qualify for enough public money to run viable campaigns.

The systems are sensible. They are entirely voluntary and impose no new restrictions on the campaign fundraising or spending of those who do not participate. And they transform elections into true contests of ideas and merit, rather than fundraising prowess.

The cost of a full congressional Fair Elections system would be tiny in the scope of the overall federal budget, which is nearing $3 trillion. And the program would accrue enormous savings by reducing wasteful expenditures, such as earmarks arranged by lobbyists.

Democratic, Republican and independent voters all support Fair Elections. Nearly 75 percent of respondents – including 80 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans – said in a mid-2006 poll that they supported a voluntary public funding system.

Meanwhile, public approval of Congress plunged to historic depths.   

Implementing a public funding system for Congress would make elections more open and empower voters. Americans are clamoring for a change – one that puts them in charge.

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