"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Skepticism concerning the desirability of reducing the role of private wealth in elections comes in two flavors. Vanilla says that the effort to get private money out of politics will do no good - it will have no effect. Chocolate says it will do too much: public financing will overload the system, preventing it from functioning effectively. Chocolate is the flavor that drives this issue of "Money on My Mind."
Public financing of elections will open up electoral politics to many who have been shut out. Using public funds to finance campaigns will allow people to run for office who otherwise would not be able to do so. Our current system effectively bars all who are not rich or do not have access to the wealthy and their money. We have therefore defended campaign finance reform as a means to open up the system and increase the number and the diversity of people who are able to run for office. Doing so will deepen democracy.
If the experience with New York City's public funding law is representative, our anticipations are valid. In a recent column in The New York Times, Eleanor Randolph wrote that with the adoption of a four to one match (the city provides $4.00 for each $1.00 raised privately) "democracy is having its day." As she says, at one point more than 400 people had declared themselves ready to run for office, far more than ever before in the past (NYT 9/9/01).
You might think that a reform that contributes to a situation in which, as Randolph puts it, "the city has been swarming with political hopefuls, reflections of the city itself with its many voices, colors, nationalities and political leanings" is self-evidently a good thing. But in politics almost nothing is self-evident. Critics worry that the reformed system might encourage frivolous candidates, thereby making it more difficult for the electorate to cast meaningful votes. By encouraging too much democracy, in short, the public funding of elections would dilute the content of democracy in the name of extending it.
Randolph's response to this concern is to cite approvingly the fact that the city's Campaign Finance Board has been vigilant in adhering to rigorous standards in distributing its public financing. In fact, only 169 candidates have actually qualified for public electoral support. In the weeding out process, the fears that the city "would wind up financing legions of eccentrics, fanatics and goofballs" were, according to Randolph, allayed.
This defense, however, concedes a lot. It seems to agree that characterizing potential candidates as eccentrics or fanatics might be a valid way to limit people from running for office. The danger in this is that it comes close to introducing a political litmus test into the process. Who is to decide who is eccentric? After all, there is not that much difference between describing a person as an eccentric and saying that a particular view point is bizarre, and on that basis barring a potential candidate.
The New York City public financing requirement of course does not explicitly bar eccentrics. What it does require is that private money be raised before public money is made available. This is done in order to demonstrate that a potential candidate possesses at least some political support. In the case of the office of Mayor, for example, $250,000 must be raised from 1,000 registered voters to qualify for the four-to-one match. What is of interest in this regard is that that at least one prominent politician, Herman Badillo, failed to raise that sum and thus did not qualify for public funding. The fact that Badillo, a well-known personality who in no way can be described as an eccentric, failed to secure public money at least raises the question of whether that bar was set too high.
Some kind of qualifying test has to be imposed on would-be candidates. Taxpayer money cannot simply be given to anyone who asks for it. But a delicate balance must be struck between the desirability of encouraging diversity among the candidates, and ensuring that only bona fide office seekers are funded. Because we are only at an early stage in the makeover of the electoral system, we have not had much experience in setting that balance. Part of our movement therefore will have to be experimental: with the implementation of public funding we will have to be open minded, both with regard to the level of funding that is to be provided, and the requirements needed to gain access to that funding.