Argument

Massachusetts has an historic opportunity to lead the country in enacting far-reaching campaign finance reform that addresses what ails the body politic: big money in politics, and voter apathy. On the ballot in November, the citizen-initiated Clean Elections proposal will level the playing field and reduce the role of special interest money in state politics.

With the debate on reform in Washington caught between a rock and a parliamentary hard place, leadership on this issue will not come from elected officials inside the Beltway. It can come from voters here in Massachusetts.

Very few people dispute the fact that the political system in this country at virtually every level is far too focused on the getting and spending of campaign cash. And it’s to the detriment of regular people whose voices are drowned out by all that special interest money. As former statewide candidates of different political persuasions, we agree that it is high time we free candidates and voters from the stranglehold of a political system awash in special interest money.

It’s high time we do something about a political system awash in special-interest money.
There are serious problems with our current campaign finance system in Massachusetts.

Those who spend the most win. Research shows that campaigns in Massachusetts are decided in large part by the amount of money a candidate can raise and spend. Over 90 percent of all competitive races are won by the highest spender, typically an incumbent. Special interest donors are understandably attracted to those already in office.

Very few challengers run. In only one-third of legislative races in 1996 were there competitive races. Democracy is about choices and debates. We can’t have either without credible, viable challengers running for office.

The money comes from wealthy special interests. One-half of one percent of the residents of Massachusetts contribute three-quarters of the money for election campaigns. Overwhelmingly, money comes from those individuals or groups who have business before the Legislature.

The money chase is dizzying. Fundraising as it is done today takes altogether too much of the time and focus of candidates and elected officials who should be presenting ideas and policy proposals to the people. Good public servants are caught in an awful system. Candidates should be free to raise issues, not money.

Even in the 1980s and early 1990s when we ran our races for statewide office, money played far too great a role in who could run, who would win, and what the public believed was bought in the process. The Clean Elections proposal will effectively end the big money chase, and allow qualified candidates to run for office without relying upon special interest money.

But, despite high polling numbers demonstrating public support for reform, there has been little mention of resolving this issue from leaders on Beacon Hill. Not to fear. We’ll do it ourselves. With exciting grassroots organizing, a citizens’ organization, Mass Voters for Clean Elections–along with Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the American Association of Retired Persons, and other groups–fielded more than 3,500 volunteers to collect in excess of 150,000 signatures in two petition drives since last October to qualify the Clean Elections initiative for the ballot. The proposed Clean Elections law was rejected by the Legislature in May.

We’re not alone in the region. Our neighbors to the North–Maine and Vermont–knew better. They have enacted similar far-reaching, clean-sweeping reforms. Voters in Massachusetts should, too.

This grassroots activity demonstrates that citizens are not sitting on their hands, not waiting for politicians to act, and not afraid of comprehensive reform. Seventy-six percent of Massachusetts voters in a public opinion survey done in March supported providing candidates who agree to spending limits with a set amount of public funding–“disinterested” rather than special interest money–to run their campaigns.

Lawmakers and elected officials of every political party should take note. Voters of both major parties as well as independents strongly support the proposal. Support is high among men and women, and old and young.

The Clean Elections proposal is quite elegant in its simplicity. Candidates who agree to spending limits and to take no contribution over $100 can receive limited public financing. But they don’t get something for nothing. Not only must candidates agree to the spending and contribution limits, they have to demonstrate community support by collecting a large number of small contributions from people in their district. The proposed spending limits range from $3 million for governor to $30,000 for state representative.

The proposal also costs relatively little. While opponents of campaign reform will cloak their dread of this bill in fiscal terms, the proposal stipulates a cost cap at one-tenth of one percent of the entire state annual budget for the program. It amounts to $14 million out of a $19 billion budget–a small price to pay for taking back our democracy.

Importantly, the citizen-initiated proposal also bans soft money from state politics, since Congressional leaders in Washington seem unwilling and reluctant to take this modest step.

Campaigns would become about voters and volunteers, not donors and dollars. No more large special interest checks. No more endless cycle of fundraising. More time devoted to talking to voters and constituents. And more time devoted to governing.

Sound good?

We think so. It gets at the very core of the money problem from which many other problems arise. By eliminating the need for massive fundraising, candidates spend more time with voters. Voters get a chance to vote on who will serve their interests without the appearance that special interest money unduly influences elected officials. Challengers will have an opportunity to run competitive races, something sorely missing from today’s politics.

This proposal is not a panacea, but it also doesn’t leave much left to resolve. Just tinkering around the edges like past reforms leaves special interest money still at the heart of our elections. That does as much good as rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

The choice is clear. Should Massachusetts, the birthplace of so many of our nation’s democratic principles, settle for a government that in many voters’ eyes is of, by, and for special interest money? Or should we lead the nation–and force Congress–in returning to the principle of “one person, one vote”?

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Voters are clamoring for meaningful change in our political system. Comprehensive reform must address the problems above. The Clean Elections initiative effectively counters them all.

As the great student of government John Stuart Mill once wrote, “Against a great evil, a small remedy does not produce a small result, it produces no result at all.”

John Sears is the former chairman of the state Republican Party. He ran for governor in 1984. Evelyn Murphy is a former Democratic lieutenant governor. She ran for governor in 1990. Both serve on the Advisory Board of Mass Voters for Clean Elections.