The city of Seattle is trying out a campaign finance experiment in city elections using a voucher system to give money to candidates. In January, residents received four $25 vouchers, paid for with taxpayer funds, that they can give to their candidates of choice for offices such as city council. “It was like getting a little check from your grandma,” Seattle resident Dakota Solberg said of the dark blue slips of paper that arrived in his mailbox recently. Unlike a check from Grandma, the vouchers, totaling $100, can only be spent on candidates for Seattle offices. Solberg said he has never contributed to local races before. “This feels like just extra money that I can use to start participating more,” he said.
National: 38 Reform Groups Oppose Efforts by House Administration Committee to Terminate Presidential Public Financing & EAC | YubaNet
In a letter sent today to members of the House Administration Committee, a group of 38 organizations and individuals with expertise in governance issues strongly opposed bills being considered tomorrow by the committee to terminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). (See below for a full list of the signers of the letter.) The group of organizations and individuals strongly oppose HR 133, a bill to terminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and HR 634, a bill to terminate the EAC. In the letter, reform groups urged the committee members to reject both bills. The letter said, “At stake is the survival of the public financing system for presidential elections and a commission that plays a vitally important role in standardizing and modernizing election administration.” Reform groups oppose HR 133 because according to the letter, “It vitiates an important check on special interest money by eliminating public financing for presidential campaigns.”
South Dakota: After ethics law repeal, lawmakers try to channel voter intent | Sioux Falls Argus Leader
It took eight legislative days to eliminate a voter-approved campaign finance and ethics law in South Dakota. The fast-tracked effort to gut the law that would have established an independent state ethics commission, set strict new limits on gifts to lawmakers and create publicly financed campaign credits drew scorn from some of the nearly 52 percent of voters who supported the proposal. It also thrust the state in the national spotlight as Republican lawmakers rejected and rolled back the will of the voters. At the Capitol, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Dennis Daugaard were the subject of protests this week as they took the final steps to strike the law set in statute as Initiated Measure 22. Opponents of the repeal efforts chanted “shame on you” and “respect our vote” as lawmakers approved House Bill 1069, which instantly erased the law from state statute when Daugaard signed it Thursday.
The way candidates’ campaigns are financed in Seattle dramatically changed Tuesday night. Initiative 122 took a 20 percentage point lead in first-day returns, which makes Seattle the nation’s first jurisdiction to try taxpayer-funded “democracy vouchers.” “Seattle leads the nation, first on $15 an hour and now on campaign-finance reform. We look forward to seeing more cities and states implementing their own local solutions to the problem of big money in politics,” said Heather Weiner, I-122 spokeswoman.
While everyone is paying attention to the 2016 primary battles unfolding in both parties, its easy to forget that we have another election coming up this Tuesday, Nov. 3. And while we won’t be choosing our next president, in three places — Maine, Seattle and Ohio — voters will be able to weigh in directly, through ballot initiatives, on how their future elections will work. Both Maine and Seattle’s ballot initiatives are aimed at limiting the power that special-interest donors wield in the political process. For over a decade, Maine has been cited as a prime example that publicly financing elections can work. The state’s Clean Elections Act offers public financing to any candidate who collects enough small donations to demonstrate widespread support, and who swears off large contributions. Passed in 1996 and implemented in 2000, the system worked, with the majority of Maine’s legislators opting in. But the system was undermined by two Supreme Court decisions — Citizens United and Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett, the latter of which went after public financing direct
Running for re-election, Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien knows firsthand that the campaign chase for donors is often at odds with the hunt for votes. “Most candidates spend about 10-15 hours a week on the phone dialing for dollars,” he estimates. “You start by looking up the people who can write the big checks. Often they aren’t even in your district and can’t even vote for you but they have the capacity to finance your election.” In the 2013 election two-thirds of all of the money raised by Seattle candidates came from just 0.3 percent of the city’s residents, according to a report by the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank. This makes for heavy competition as dozens of candidates try to appeal to a very narrow slice of the electorate. “Of course everyone else is calling those same people so you’re fighting with other candidates whether they’re in your race or not, to convince the donors that you’re their guy and they should write you a check,” O’Brien said.
Candidate Hillary Clinton thinks there’s too much money in politics. But President Hillary Clinton — should she win — will find it very difficult to change that. Vowing to fix the country’s campaign finance system is a perennial campaign trail promise, especially for Democrats. But finding ways to reduce the amount of money in politics has bedeviled every presidential administration since Bill Clinton’s. Mr. Clinton promised campaign finance changes early in his first term. Barack Obama ran against big money in politics in 2008, even though he became the first candidate to refuse public financing in the general election since the system was introduced in the 1970s. Mrs. Clinton advocated expanding publicly-financed campaigns during her first run for office.
You already hate tax season, and as you move wearily through the cold calculations of the 1040 form, you come across a familiar checkbox. It’s the one that requests permission to send $3 to the “presidential election campaign,” delivering cash to a bunch of politicians that you’re sure are awash in money anyway. “What’s the point?” you might ask yourself. To fund more polarizing and negative campaign ads? You happily refuse to check the box. By doing so, you joined 94 percent of Americans who also declined to make that checkmark. The share of tax forms with a checked box has been declining steadily for decades.
“I had a college degree, a decade of experience, and the only job I could get was making $8 an hour at the local convenience store in my neighborhood,” Maine state Rep. Diane Russell (D) said in January, recalling her unlikely path to public office. “I have no business being in politics. I was not groomed for this. But thanks to public financing, I have a voice. And thanks to public financing, a gal who takes cash for the convenience store for selling sandwiches can actually talk about the stories that she’s learned from behind the counter.” Russell was speaking at an event on the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling that set off an avalanche of money in politics. After her state’s “clean elections” system propelled Russell into office in 2008, she quickly became a force in Maine politics. Her progressive record of defending voting rights and workers, for example, led the Nation to recognize her as its “Most Valuable State Representative” in 2011.
A stack of bills aimed at cleaning up Maine’s Clean Election finance law holds the potential to rankle political leaders on both sides of the aisle. State Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said he knows leadership is displeased with his efforts to stop candidates who are seeking state office from also running political action committees that can filter money back to a political party, which in turn can use it to support a candidate or oppose a rival. According to Chenette and others, the practice creates a virtual black hole in Maine’s campaign finance law, allowing candidates the cover of their party when attacking opponents. State law also allows candidates who are running publicly funded campaigns, under the state’s Clean Election law, to separately manage so-called “leadership PACs” and collect private donations from industry lobbyists and others.
In the five years since the Citizens United decision was handed down, there has been plenty of evidence to document the magnitude of the flow of dark money and the effects it has had on American politics. In one of the most impassioned moments of the State of the Union address, President Obama decried the corrosive influence of anonymous money in politics. “A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” he said. His comment could not have been more timely, coming as it did a day before the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and labor unions to engage in unlimited spending to advocate for or against candidates. Advocacy groups used the occasion (and the Twitter hashtag #CU5) to start new conversations about the impact big money is having on our democracy, and how to fix it. The Brennan Center hosted a summit on the topic with Common Cause, Demos and others. The American Constitution Society delved into one of the ruling’s more insidious effects: In states where judges are elected, the judiciary is effectively for sale. The Center for American Progress talked about how to mitigate the decision’s impact through executive action.
With the 2014 election in the rearview mirror, the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee in the coming session will look to address some of the issues raised during this year’s campaigns and at the polls. The 2014 election was the first test of Connecticut’s campaign finance laws as they were modified by the legislature in 2013, when lawmakers reacted to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision by easing limitations on the amount of money political parties could raise and contribute to candidates using the public financing system. Rep. Ed Jutila, one of the committee’s co-chairman, said he was wary of those changes to begin with. “Now, looking back after an election cycle with those changes, I think we need to revisit them. I think we may have over-reacted,” he said. The new rules allowed the state Democratic Party to spend $207,000 on senator-elect Ted Kennedy Jr.’s public-financed campaign.
Editorials: People hate politics. So why is nobody talking about campaign finance reform? | Jaime Fuller/The Washington Post
After more than a year of campaigning, New Hampshire Senate candidate Jim Rubens (R) has decided on his closing message: the “disconnect between voters in New Hampshire and politicians in Washington, D.C.” He was campaigning in Groveton, a small town of about 1,000 near the Canadian border, when he walked into a diner (as all candidates in New Hampshire inevitably do). “The entire room erupted,” the former state senator said. “People were ready to vent their frustrations. I’ve been involved with politics in this state for 20 years, and I’ve never felt the dissatisfaction more than I do now.” His anecdotal evidence is backed up by empirical data; when Gallup asked Americans what the top problem facing the nation was, many of the top answers have been variations on grumbling about the state of government today.
If Gov. Christie were to resign early to pursue a bid for the presidency, a special election could be held to replace him, depending on the timing of his resignation. That scenario – an unusual one – could put candidates with lesser financial resources at a disadvantage: Unlike candidates in a regular gubernatorial election, they wouldn’t be able to opt into the state’s public financing program to raise money for their campaigns. The discrepancy, realized by officials at the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, prompted the introduction of a bill that cleared a Senate committee Monday.
Make what you will of Judge Melgren’s analysis of preemption, or the hints of his constitutional stance on the federal-state balance of authority under the Elections Clause—his decision in Kobach v. The United States Election Assistance Commissionis a mechanical exercise that leaves the reader without any sense of what this case isabout. Kansas and Arizona have not merely made a “determination” of what they need to verify the citizenship of state residents seeking to become voters. The history behind this litigation is more complex, with more history to it, and the court knew it. It chose, however, to follow example of the Supreme Court and to do as the High Court has done in other cases, like Purcell v. Gonzalez and Crawford v. Marion County, and leave the real world out. Some might say that the Supreme Court is bound to disregard the politics behind these cases and train its eye on the “law” alone. But the Justices’ fidelity to this proposition is mixed. Justice Scalia, for example, has enlivened his constitutional position on campaign finance doctrine with references to the history of incumbent manipulation of the campaign finance laws—including evidence of political mischief that he found quite compelling in the very case under review.
After one unsuccessful engagement with the Supreme Court, the State of Arizona continues to work through the implementation of its public financing laws. The issue remains, as before, how it can structure the law to draw candidates into the systems. One strategy it devised did not suit the Court: the state discovered that it could not provide offsetting public funding to participating candidates who faced well-heeled opponents and free-spending independent expenditure groups. Now Arizona is fighting over another mechanism for encouraging participation, or discouraging nonparticipation, in the public funding system. This one involves reducing the contribution limits to make them less appealing to candidates who are considering electing private support through contributions rather than public financing. In 1998, voters approved Proposition 200, known as the Clean Elections Act, which established a public financing system and reduced the contributions limits then specified by law for candidates who did not participate in the public financing system. It imposed for these nonparticipating candidates a 20% reduction in then-existing limits and established aggregate limits on contributions by candidates and political committees. In 2013, the legislature increased the contribution limits available to nonparticipating candidates and eliminated the aggregate limits.
It looks as though the “super PAC” era is coming to New York. A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that a conservative group supporting Joseph J. Lhota, the Republican nominee for mayor of New York City, can immediately begin accepting contributions of any size because New York State’s limit on donations to independent political committees is probably unconstitutional. The ruling, 12 days before the mayoral election, is not likely to change the dynamics of the race, given the wide lead of the Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, and a presumed reluctance by many potential big donors to donate to an underdog candidate this late in the game. But an end to limits on contributions to independent political groups could have a much bigger impact next year, when voters will decide whether to re-elect Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and will determine which party controls the State Senate — a long-running battle in which independent spending could make a significant difference. “This could usher in an era where super PACs call the shots in campaigns all over the state, not just in the city,” said David Donnelly, the executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, which advocates public financing of elections.
Tuesday’s oral argument in McCutcheon v. FEC, the latest high-profile campaign finance case, will likely generate familiar storylines about a fiercely ideological Supreme Court, where one justice drives the outcome of a close 5-4 decision. Public perception of the Supreme Court is that there are four conservatives, four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle — as the “swing” vote. But that’s wrong — at least where voting rights and campaign finance cases are concerned. Though Kennedy’s vote dictates some outcomes when the court is split 5-4 along ideological lines, another justice has been the driving force behind current election law jurisprudence. In this matter, it is truly Chief Justice John Roberts’s court. Since Roberts became chief justice in 2005, the court has issued 23 written opinions involving voting rights, redistricting or campaign finance. Roberts is the only justice who has been in the majority every time. In addition, he has written twice as many majority opinions in this field as any other justice — six, as compared to Kennedy’s three. Roberts has now written more than 25 percent of the election law decisions handed down since he joined the court.
The second-day story from New York City’s primaries last week could have been the exceptional performance of the city’s unique system of small-donor public financing. By providing a six-dollar public match for every dollar raised in contributions of $175 or less, the system enabled the little-known Scott Stringer to compete with and defeat Eliot Spitzer’s family fortune in the race for Comptroller. On the Republican side, it helped mayoral nominee Joe Lhota, who received almost half his total spending in public money, to overcome another self-financed millionaire. The top three Democratic candidates for mayor finished in reverse order of the amount of private money they had raised, and as Alec MacGillis noted here, public financing allowed the eventual nominee, Bill de Blasio, to resist the policy preferences of big donors, such as opposition to paid sick leave. Dozens of city council and other races featured three or more candidates with enough money to compete. But instead of celebrating a system that finally emerged from the shadows of Michael Bloomberg’s personal spending to show its value, we’ve had handwringing about the rise of “outside money,” or spending by groups other than the candidates and parties, in New York City politics. Jim Dwyer in The New York Times argued that outside spending was “reshaping” city politics, focusing on three independent committees: one that promoted “Anybody But [Christine] Quinn,” based on the City Council speaker’s refusal to block horse carriages from Central Park; a tiny committee formed to support Lhota, with contributions solely from David and Julia Koch; and Jobs for New York, the biggest outside spender, a front for the real estate industry.
In the final hours of the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2013 session, the Republican-controlled legislature passed House Bill 589 [PDF] (HB 589), an omnibus package of election law “reforms” aimed at further “securing the vote.” A few weeks later HB 589 was signed into law by Republican Governor Pat McCrory, despite the Governor’s initial admission that he “doesn’t know enough” about certain provisions of the legislation and in the face of growing opposition from the public. The legislation’s expected effect of diminishing the ability of North Carolina voters from casting their ballots seems incongruous with the legislation’s preamble stating in part: “[a]n act to restore confidence in government.” In effect, this legislative effort appears to be a not-so-veiled attack on voting which will make the registration process and actual act of casting a vote more onerous, particularly for the poor, minority, college-age youth and elderly voters. Until recently, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Prior to the US Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder in June, election law changes impacting any of these counties (and many others nationally) required preclearance review by the US Department of Justice. The Shelby County holding invalidated Section 4 (which set forth the formula for determining those jurisdictions subject to preclearance) and effectively voided Section 5 (the preclearance provision) of the VRA. It now appears that the Court’s June decision prompted Republican members of the General Assembly to revisit previously filed legislation [PDF] intent on further restricting ballot access and scaling back current election laws knowing that the sometimes long and arduous road of preclearance would likely not need to be traveled.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calendar this past week looked like this: unpack from an Italian vacation, catch up with advisers and kick off a campaign with a small-town rally for an election that will be held in just five weeks. In the United States, the 2016 campaign is well under way, with contenders jostling to give speeches in the battleground state of Iowa. But in Germany, where regulations keep political ads largely off the airwaves, the sleepy federal election campaign fired up only last week, when parties were finally allowed to string up signs on light poles. Merkel’s main challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, also just dusted himself off from a weeklong vacation and has been barnstorming from one half-timbered town square to another, although according to many local observers, the battle remains as lukewarm as any in memory. German candidates typically hit the trail just a few weeks before an election, spend far less than $50 million — pocket change by Obama-Romney standards — and yet draw voter turnout that, while declining, is still well above U.S. levels. “It’s sensible to have a short campaign,” said Heiko Geue, Steinbrueck’s campaign manager, in an interview in his spartan office at the Social Democrats’ red-bedecked Berlin headquarters. “People decide a few days or the day of the election whether they’ll vote and which party to vote for.”
When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signs North Carolina’s sweeping new elections bill as expected this month, critics will be ready to act, too – in court. The bill not only contains one of the nation’s strictest photo ID laws but compresses the time for early voting and ends straight-ticket balloting. It would no longer count provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The bill that emerged in the final days of this year’s legislative session goes beyond voting changes. It limits disclosure of outside campaign spending, ends public financing for judicial races and no longer makes candidates take responsibility for their ads. “I have never seen a single law that is more anti-voter,” says Penda Hair, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, a civil rights group in Washington. “North Carolina now joins a very short list of (states) that seem … motivated to stop people from voting.”
On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11, as the North Carolina House jousted over details of the state budget, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican attorney from the state’s mountain region, decided to help the legislature reach a compromise on a thorny problem. At issue was the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, a popular program launched in 2003 to help free judges from relying on deep-pocketed — and potentially compromising — special interest donors to get elected. Eighty percent of eligible judges — conservatives and liberals — used the voluntery program, which awarded candidates a grant to help run their campaign if they raised at least 350 small donations and agreed to strict spending limits. Ideologues hated the public financing option, but judges and even many conservatives thought it boosted public confidence in the courts. In May, members of the state’s Court of Appeals took the unusual step of publicly calling on legislative leaders to keep the program. A dozen newspapers praised its success, and two Republican officials from West Virginia came to explain why their state had just adopted the North Carolina model.
The community of federal campaign oversight will undergo significant downsizing following announcements from the Federal Election Commission and the House Administration Committee, Wednesday. Tony Herman, General Legal Counsel to the Federal Election Commission, will leave the agency this July and the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) moved one inch closer to being scrapped. In a statement, FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub said, “I want to thank Tony for his outstanding service to this agency and to the American public.” He will return to Covington & Burling, LLP where he was a partner before joining the FEC in 2011. The FEC has been understaffed since February when former commissioner, Cynthia Bauerly, left after serving nearly a 5-year term. Now with five out of six commissioners, each serving expired terms, the agency will need to locate a new General Counsel before July 7.
West Virginia: Funding an issue for Supreme Court candidate public financing; program to have $1.5M balance | Associated Press
Pleased that a public financing experiment for Supreme Court candidates is now a permanent program, West Virginia’s State Election Commission also noted Thursday that it will only have an estimated $1.5 million to offer when a court seat is next on the ballot in 2016. The commission voted to approve proposed revisions to the program’s rules, following passage of legislation expanding what had been a one-election pilot. But commission members were also mindful that the recently concluded session did not include additional funding or revenue sources for the program. Lawmakers instead took $1.5 million from the program’s balance, after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requested it for other budgetary needs. That leaves $1.1 million, while the state treasurer is scheduled to provide an additional $400,000 by July 2015, Timothy Leach, a lawyer for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, said during Thursday’s meeting.
All five sitting commissioners at the Federal Election Commission are now serving expired terms, while the sixth seat remains unfilled since a commissioner retired on Feb. 1, 2013. FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter’s term expired on Tuesday. Until their replacements are confirmed by the Senate, FEC commissioners are permitted to stay on. Former Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly resigned her post in February long after her own term had expired. President Barack Obama has not successfully appointed a single new commissioner to the FEC. In 2010, his lone appointee withdrew during a contentious confirmation process. Obama’s failure to name commissioners has been a sore point for campaign finance reformers, who sent a blistering letter to the White House on Monday excoriating the president for not pushing hard enough to reform the nation’s system of campaign funding.
Arizona Republican lawmakers are poised to wildly increase the state’s campaign finance limits in an effort that would allow an unprecedented flood of private dollars into local elections and undermine the state’s public campaign financing system. Republicans said current limits are unconstitutionally low, especially given the growing influence of outside political advertisements in national and state campaigns made possible by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that erased years of campaign finance law. But Democrats argued the measure would give wealthy donors and political groups more influence in campaigns while effectively dismantling the state’s public financing options approved by voters. The bill would not increase funding for candidates running under the state’s public campaign financing option.
Already short one officer, the Federal Election Commission will soon have a dubious distinction: As of April 30, all five of its remaining commissioners will be serving expired terms. By now President Barack Obama’s failure to fully staff the dysfunctional agency barely even riles government watchdogs. In theory composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, the FEC has been deadlocked for so long that, some argue, the agency could hardly grind to more of a halt. But the FEC’s growing backlog of work, protracted stalemates and failure to enforce or even explain the rules is taking a toll. At a minimum, political players are increasingly confused about how to reconcile already-complicated election laws with the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling to deregulate political spending. (The FEC has yet to issue regulations interpreting that ruling.) At worst, the FEC’s failure to act on even the most blatant violations is sending an “anything goes” signal to political players, who are becoming increasingly brazen about testing what’s allowed. True, most candidates, elected officials and donors simply want to understand the rules and follow them. But a growing number, election lawyers say, see their competitors pushing the envelope and are tempted to follow suit.
New York: Cecilia Tkaczyk, Democrat, Ekes Out 18 Vote Victory in Republican Senate District | NYTimes.com
Hoping to pad their narrow majority in the State Senate, Republicans used the redistricting process last year to draw a new, Republican-friendly district in the Albany area. They expected that George A. Amedore Jr., a state assemblyman whose family has a successful home-building business in the capital region, would have no trouble making the jump to the Legislature’s upper house. Democrats sued to block the creation of the seat, but failed. Yet on Friday, 73 days after Election Day, Mr. Amedore conceded defeat to a little-known opponent: Cecilia F. Tkaczyk, a Democrat who, in addition to serving as vice president of the local school board, is also the vice president of the Golden Fleece Spinners and Weavers Guild. Ms. Tkaczyk (pronounced KAT-chik) was ahead by 18 votes — out of more than 126,000 cast — after a batch of contested ballots was counted in Ulster and Albany Counties. (Another uncounted ballot was found in Montgomery County, but it remains unclear whether it will be counted.)
Here’s one way Gov. Andrew Cuomo can match the acclaim he achieved by getting same-sex marriage approved in New York State: persuade the State Legislature to make New York’s system of electing legislators the fairest and most transparent in the country. Such a system should include a public financing mechanism modeled on New York City’s successful efforts to involve small donors with matching contributions. It would set sensible limits on individual and corporate contributions. It would close loopholes. It would be transparent and strictly enforced. By setting a national standard for public financing, New York State could go from laggard to leader.