Wisconsin – and our entire country – needs a totally new approach to election financing.
In the senate recall elections, candidates are raising record sums of money, yet outside interest groups have a virtual monopoly on election advertising. In the current environment, candidates end up being twice cursed. The large sums of private special interest money they accept raise eyebrows to say the least. Most anyone paying attention reaches the unavoidable conclusion that they are beholden to – and corrupted by – their donors. But at the same time, all the tainted money candidates raise barely gets them noticed as their campaign messages are swamped by the advertising sponsored by outside interest groups. They end up bystanders in their own elections.
Wisconsin needs elections where candidates actually matter. That means candidates must have enough money to run competitively for state office. And enough to avoid being totally overwhelmed by outside groups.
But it’s not enough for them to have enough money. Wisconsin also needs an election financing system allowing candidates to remain relevant without creating an appearance of corruption or otherwise laying waste to public trust in the integrity of elected officials.
Traditional approaches to campaign finance reform – like the 34-year-old Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund or the year-old Impartial Justice Act that were just repealed – cannot possibly accomplish both of these goals. Public financing was traditionally provided to candidates who agreed to limit their spending. The availability of public financing does free candidates from the need to raise large amounts of private special interest money. But if that public financing comes with strings attached, namely spending limits, then candidates are hamstrung in their ability to respond to attacks by outside groups.
Both the Ellis-Erpenbach bill and the Impartial Justice Act made candidates eligible for extra public money known as “rescue funds” or “trigger matching funds” if they faced high-spending opponents. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down just such a provision in Arizona’s public financing program in its ruling in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett. As a result, any candidate agreeing to the spending limits in Ellis-Erpenbach or the Impartial Justice Act would be left at the mercy of the interest groups and would most likely wind up being a spectator on the sidelines in any competitive election.
Moreover, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission did away with any kind of limits on election spending for all intents and purposes. This ruling makes the spending limits that were part of traditional public financing programs obsolete.
For all of these reasons, it is abundantly clear that a new approach to election financing is required. For public financing to have a meaningful impact – or even relevance – in today’s elections, receiving public funds can no longer be conditioned on acceptance of spending limits. Public financing can and should help free candidates from heavy reliance on private special interest donations, but not at the cost of making candidates unilaterally disarm and become irrelevant participants in elections.
There is a way to keep candidates relevant but also free of undue special interest influence. A report from the national Campaign Finance Institute outlines the one constitutionally permissible form of public financing that can incentivize small-donor fundraising while not tying the hands of candidates by limiting their campaign spending.
With the dawn of Internet activism and online fundraising, a small-donor revolution became feasible. As the Web's political utility becomes more and more refined, small-donor-driven campaigns become more and more practical.
Look over CFI’s report and consider the dramatic impact a small-donor incentive program could have on Wisconsin’s elections. The Democracy Campaign has put forward a new approach to election financing for our state that is based on this model.
If this summer's recall elections have made anything clear, it's that election financing is in serious need of some major paradigm shifting.