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Keeping elections clean

By Lou Dobbs
CNN

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(CNN) -- In addition to choosing a U.S. president, the 2004 election is a referendum on the success of the McCain-Feingold reforms, otherwise known as the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002.

But as campaign finance reforms have faced their first test on a federal level, several states have an established record of running elections under even broader reforms.

Voters in Arizona and Maine approved "Clean Elections" laws in the late 1990s, allowing candidates for state-level offices to receive full public funding for their campaigns. The goal of these systems is to give more average citizens a political voice and allow them to forgo private fund-raising and its negative associations with special interest groups.

To qualify for public funding, a candidate would have to agree not to raise private funds, to limit spending of public funds and to prove he is not a fringe candidate by raising a number of very small (often $5) donations. If outspent by a privately funded opponent, a "clean" candidate would receive matching public funds.

Maine and Arizona had a chance to test their systems in 2002, proving that candidates can run successful campaigns on full public spending. In that year, 39 of Arizona's elected candidates were "clean" -- 22 Republicans and 17 Democrats. The state's voters elected the first governor with no financial ties to special interests, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. And voter turnout went up 10 percent. In Maine, three-quarters of the state Senate and half of the state House are elected officials who received public funding.

Four other states -- New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont -- have adopted limited versions of the Clean Elections program, providing funding for certain state races. West Virginia and Minnesota have passed Clean Elections bills in committees. And similar bills stand a good chance of passing in Connecticut and Hawaii, said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a campaign-finance reform organization.

In Connecticut, outrage over the finance scandals clouding former Gov. John Rowland is driving public interest in the reforms, Nyhart said. A similar phenomenon is unfolding among citizens in California, which also has a Clean Elections bill in play. Former Gov. Gray Davis, despite a lack of personal wealth, "really learned the fund-raising game," Nyhart said. "If you wanted to have the governor's backing, you needed to make campaign contributions in a big way. I think that's part of the reason he was recalled: not standing for anything but the need to raise money."

Some of the public funds for Clean Elections candidates come from check boxes on state income tax returns. Other funding comes from surcharges on civil and criminal fines, as in Arizona, and from the state General Fund, as in Maine. Opponents of Clean Elections laws argue that this is a waste of taxpayer money, particularly as states struggle with budget deficits.

Earlier this year, a group called No Taxpayer Money for Politicians mounted an effort to persuade voters to overturn Arizona's Clean Elections law. The issue went to the Arizona Supreme Court, which struck down the counter-initiative. It will not be on the November 2 ballot. Another group filed a lawsuit asking the state to bar the payment of matching funds to public candidates, claiming the payments were unconstitutional because they chilled free-speech rights. A superior court judge refused to stop the payments.

"It's pretty hard to make the argument that public financing chills speech," Nyhart said. "Our law gives speech to people who don't have their own money or don't want to raise it from special interests. We actually expand speech."

Proponents hope to move beyond McCain-Feingold to bring Arizona and Maine's campaign-finance reforms to a national level. The Clean Money, Clean Elections Act, a model bill put before the House and Senate last year, will likely be reintroduced next year, Nyhart said. "I suspect that when you combine the success at the state level with an increasingly money-dominated federal system, the attractiveness of the bill will grow."


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