Yesterday morning, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, a bipartisan bill to bring voluntary public financing to U.S. Senate elections. (A companion bill will also be introduced on the House side by Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) soon.)
We all know the problem: even with the rise of small-dollar donations pioneered by the Dean campaign, a hundred $20 donors can be dwarfed by a single $2300 maximum contribution, and very few Americans (one in 400) gives even $200+ as a campaign contribution. So candidates spend all their time chasing down that money -- Tuesday's Philadelphia Inquirer highlighted how freshman Reps. Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak are on a perpetual fundraising mission to retain the seats they just won months ago.
The Fair Elections Now Act, modeled after the successful systems in place in Maine and Arizona, has three parts:
* Seed Money: Candidates can raise up to $100 per individual/PAC to get a campaign off the ground (up to a set limit), in an effort to finance their bid to ...
* Gather Qualifying Contributions: To qualify for public financing, Senate candidate needs to demonstrate her seriousness and base of support by obtaining a set number of $5 contributions (and no more than $5) from citizens across the state. Obtain enough (based on the size of your state), and you receive ...
* The Benefits: For agreeing not to accept private funding, a candidate instead receives a large sum of money to run her primary campaign, and if she is successful, a larger sum for the general as well. That sum is based on the size of the state and its media costs, and if the candidate is facing an opponent receing private money or support via independent expenditures, it can be as much as tripled (the "fair fight fund") to ensure a level playing field.
Let's put some numbers on it to make this tangible. A Senate candidate in Delaware could raise up to $75,000 in seed money in order to gather the two thousand $5 contributions necessary to qualify for primary funding; upon obtaining that sum, $500,000 would be immediately available for the primary (and up to $1.5M if needed for a fair fight), and $750,000 for the general (and up to $2.25M if needed). In California, a Senate candidate could raise up to $465,000 in seed money in order to gather the 28,000 $5 contributions necessary to qualify for primary funding; upon obtaining that sum, $5.7M would be immediately available for the primary (and up to $17.1M if needed for a fair fight), and $8.5M for the general (and up to $25.6M if needed against a privately-financed opponent).
[Moreover, there will be a media market adjustment to address variations among states, and participants would receive vouchers for purchasing broadcast airtime and would receive a 20% discount beneath the lowest unit cost on all advertising purchased near the end of the primary and general campaigns.]
Here, of course, is the beauty of the system: the system first forces grassroots organizing at the early stages, and then with the burdens of fundraising removed, frees up the candidates to spend much more time with citizens than they can right now. And once elected, they're no longer dependent upon the continued support large donors to get re-elected, but on citizens alone, which could change the dynamics on a wide range of policy issues.
Moreover, it's voluntary: a candidate can choose to stick with private contributions, but he'll have to be able to raise a huge amount, because all that effort will otherwise just be matched by automatic "fair fight" grants to his opponent. The voluntary nature of this also avoids any constitutional questions about restricting candidates' or contributors' rights.
Who's supporting it? Labor groups like the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, and CWA have lined up behind it to give working people a chance to be heard in the political process. MoveOn is supporting it -- even though they're now among the big spenders/influencers in elections, they don't like the status quo. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are on board, as are civil rights organizations like NAACP and MALDEF. Also, perhaps surprisingly, some very wealthy and influential donors like Alan Hassenfeld (Hasbro) and Edgar Bronfman Sr. fmr. Seagrams), who are tired of how the game has been played.
What can you do: Sign up as a citizen co-sponsor. Tell your friends about it. And call up your Senators and get them on board. I tend to be a cynic about Big Change Legislation, but I think voluntary public financing is a much-needed idea whose time has come.