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Putting the clean back into elections

By Brendan Brooks | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted April 19, 2007

As I worked my way through a stack of contribution envelopes, one caught my eye. In the envelope were two $1 bills and a simple note: “Sorry, this is all I could spare. Good luck!” It was an extremely powerful sight.

I was working on the Sanders for Senate campaign, entering campaign contribution data. Most contributions were fairly small, $30 or less. I was impressed by the desire of so many citizens to contribute to democracy, but the experience made me realize how important money is to the electoral process — perhaps too important.

Another election cycle has come and gone. The strong Democratic tide swept out Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Will another two years go by without any movement on campaign finance reform?

In 2006, once again money played a commanding role in electing our leaders, and record amounts were spent nationwide and especially in Vermont. The 2006 U.S. Senate race between Republican Richard Tarrant and Bernie Sanders, an independent, shattered the previous record for the most money spent in a Vermont statewide election, not to mention a number of other records, including most money spent per vote.

Ultimately, the candidate who spent less money won, but historically this has not been the case nationwide. In 2004, the candidate who spent the most money won 95 percent of the time.

The influence of money in politics is far-reaching, but a quick profile of the sources of this money is more alarming.

About half of all contributions come from political action committees (PACs) dedicated to a certain political purpose. The other half of contributions come from individuals. While many people give small sums of money, the reality is that the majority of the money coming from individual contributors is from donations of $1,000 or more. We read in the media all the time about high-profile politicians speaking at dinners for contributors. Many of these dinners cost $2,200 a plate, the maximum amount an individual can give. With extremely wealthy individual donors and PACs contributing the vast majority of the money in the political process, average people are squeezed out and democracy is compromised.

The Vermont Legislature has recently made progress in reforming the political finance system. In 1997, the Legislature passed a campaign finance reform bill that was signed into law by then-governor Howard Dean, a Democrat. However, in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, citing what they viewed as extreme restrictions on fundraising as a violation of freedom of speech.

In March of this year, the state Senate unanimously passed a new campaign finance reform bill. This bill allows gubernatorial candidates the ability to receive more money than candidates for other statewide offices. For candidates for governor, the maximum donation from an individual or a PAC is $1,000, for lieutenant governor, $750. The limits placed on legislature were $500 for a Senate seat and $250 for the House.

The proposed law also limits individuals and PACs giving more than $20,000 to all candidates in a two-year election cycle. This bill takes steps toward reforming the campaign finance system, but broader and more effective legislation is needed.

Momentum is gathering behind the movement toward “clean campaigns,” or a campaign in which every candidate is publicly financed. No private donations are allowed.

A candidate must prove their legitimacy by collecting a petition with a certain number of signatures (often proposed as 500), and then they are eligible to receive taxpayer money. Each then receives the same amount of money, and the ability to fundraise is completely removed as a factor. This is designed to make sure that issues and the people are what decide the victor.

Clean campaigns are currently proposed mostly for city and state elections, as it is easier to test such a system on a smaller scale. Clean campaigns are not a perfect system, but could provide a very viable alternative and help legitimize the electoral process.

Brendan Brooks is a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg