Capital Beat: Advocates think 2019 is the year for publicly funded elections

Monitor staff
Published: 9/22/2018 11:52:51 PM

It was an early flashpoint in the Democratic gubernatorial primary: Which candidate was doing more to turn away corporate campaign donations?

It was a key factor in the Democrats’ race for the 1st Congressional District nomination, as Maura Sullivan’s massive war chest, filled with out-of-state contributions, evolved from asset to political liability.

Now as the remaining candidates sprint to the Nov. 6 election, the reality for many is inescapable: How they raise their money is becoming as critical as how much they raised.

And after a primary in which Sullivan, a Washington establishment-backed New Hampshire transplant, lost handily to Chris Pappas, who had raised a fraction of Sullivan’s haul, one group says the state needs to assert a much bigger role in the way campaigns fund themselves.

Enter Open Democracy Action, a campaign finance reform advocacy group that hopes to drive a new focus to an old idea: publicly funded elections. The organization is pushing legislation to provide public funding to certain candidates who agree to turn away checks from lobbyists, businesses and labor unions, and cap individual contributions to $500.

It’s not a new concept – even for New Hampshire. It’s not been a particularly successful idea here, historically; numerous similar bills have failed in recent years. And under the latest proposal, it’s not cheap, carrying a price tag upward of $6 million.

But Olivia Zink, the organization’s executive director, argued that a newfound focus on the matter this election cycle could pave the way for consensus when the Legislature returns.

“I think that this year is different,” she said. “This is the first election season where we’re seeing this become a campaign issue. I think that public awareness and outreach is at (a high) level. This is a bipartisan problem, and it has a bipartisan solution.”

Open Democracy’s draft bill, cobbled by a small team of House and Senate lawmakers and released last week, would create a voucher system allowing each New Hampshire voter up to $100 to spend toward campaigns of their choice. The vouchers, known as “democracy dollars,” would be mailed to voters ahead of the election cycle, each receiving four $25 democracy dollars to donate to up to four campaigns.

Pick your candidates of choice, mail back your vouchers, and the secretary of state’s office will transfer the funds from there, the bill stipulates. The funds would be available to candidates who voluntarily take part; non-participants could take as much corporate money as ever.

The funding itself, meanwhile, would be capped at $6.2 million, and be limited to candidates for governor and executive council.

It’s a relatively new iteration of a concept that’s been in the mainstream since 1974, when Congress passed the Campaign Finance Reform Act. That allowed federal candidates to accept public financing grants, a mechanism that has slowly been abandoned as candidates who try it get steamrolled by opponents with gobs more money.

The voucher program adds a twist to the grant model – voter involvement. To Zink and other supporters, it creates an incentive for campaigns to court voters individually, each of whom has modest financial power. And it gives a boost to candidates who prefer talking to voters as opposed to courting dollars from party donors.

“If your campaign is hustling, has volunteers, is going out doing events, having people assign vouchers, it’s very possible that some candidates will do better than others,” Zink said.

It could even, supporters say, cut down on negative campaigning.

So far, guiding examples for the voucher system are scarce. While states like Maine, Connecticut and Arizona have grant funding programs in place, only Seattle has so far implemented the voucher concept.

Seattle’s system has shown some results: The city announced last year that in its first year its “democracy vouchers” had boosted individual contributions by 300 percent. However, the report also found that those using the vouchers trended overwhelmingly white and upper income.

Larry Lessig, a Harvard law professor at the heart of national campaign finance reform efforts, has praised New Hampshire’s proposal, pointing out that it mirrors attempts at the federal level. Though costly, public campaign funding could cut down on “corporate welfare,” he said – the kickbacks and subsidies regularly handed out in Congress to companies that bankroll campaigns.

“Our view is if you could liberate the members of Congress from the spenders, they would be much more likely to think what’s in the public interest,” he said in an interview.

Still, in New Hampshire, it’s a radical proposal that faces long odds.

In January, a bill creating a very similar voucher program – House Bill 1773 – was quickly stamped out, voted “inexpedient to legislate” in a 16-3 vote in the House Election Law committee and crushed on the House floor, 214-135.

One concern was simple: cost. But for Rep. Norman Silber, a member of the committee that voted against the bill, the outcome was driven by bigger themes.

“In my view and in the view of the substantial overwhelming majority of the committee, it is not in the government’s role to finance elections, to finance campaigns,” he said. “It’s just not the American way.”

Silber, a Gilford Republican who is not seeking re-election, argued that injecting taxpayer funds into elections disrupts the “free marketplace of ideas,” which includes corporations. Those paying taxes in the state, he added, should not see their dollars go to candidates whose message they philosophically disagree with – whether directly or indirectly.

“I don’t think that the framers of the Constitution found that there was anything inherently evil about money coming into an election from out of state or from a corporation,” he said.

As for the proposal’s prospects in the New Hampshire Legislature: “If it’s a penny, it ain’t gonna pass,” he said. “It’s not something that government should be spending tax money on.”

Even a co-sponsor of the January measure, Democratic Rep. Marjorie Porter, admits it was inherently a difficult pitch.

“It didn’t get a very good reception, and part of the reason is it was expensive and there was no indication of where the money was going to come from,” she said. “I think even for Democrats who think favorably of it, I think the concern was if we take (the money) to do it are we taking it away from social services?”

Still, she argued, it’s an enticing idea that could pick up traction as the spotlight on money in politics intensifies.

This time around – as last time – the group is pegging hopes on a bipartisan cadre to push the measure, from Republican Sen. Dan Innis and Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel to Democrat Martha Hennessey and Rep. Rennie Cushing.

And advocates hope a high-profile push from Lessig, who wrote about the virtues of a voucher system in a 2011 book, and the Law and Order actor Sam Waterston – both of whom spoke at an event in Concord on Tuesday – will push the needle.

As campaign finance reform takes on an increased role – two years after presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders made a show of limited corporate donations – some have argued that public campaign funding systems are less necessary. Voters can follow the money and use it against candidates themselves, goes the mindset.

As Silber put it: Didn’t Manchester business-owner Chris Pappas prevail over Sullivan despite – and potentially because of – her significant out-of-state fundraising advantage?

But Lessig says those pledges are not as all-encompassing as they may seem. Refusing corporate political action committee (PAC) money does not bar well-heeled donors from cutting candidates four-figure checks, he points out.

“I’m happy that candidates make this an issue, but the reality is the significance of that is extremely small,” he said. “You’re still raising money from a tiny number of people.”

Ultimately, Lessig says, the need for a publicly funded system is the best way to ensure a basic tenet of democracy.

“If you change the way you fund campaigns, then you can’t help to have representatives that are more representative,” he said.

For New Hampshire’s 424-member Legislature, that might be a tough sell.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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