Citizens Rally to Save Clean Elections Program

Students Gather to Push Legislation Protecting Public Funding Pilot for County Council Elections

In the wake of an elections season dominated by private money and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v FEC, over thirty students and citizens walked from UH Hilo and gathered at the state building, holding signs and calling on state legislators to keep up funding for the Big Island public funding pilot program.

Even though the pilot program has been successful, allowing five out of nine current councilors to get elected without accepting any private money, funding to continue the program has been called into question.

The Campaign Spending Commission, which administers the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, has been running at a deficit for several years.  Unless the Campaign Fund has more than $3.5 million by next September, the Commission may halt the pilot program.

Noelie Rodrigues still Rallying for the Public

Noelie Rodrigues still Rallying for the Public

“It’s imperative the state find more funding for the Election Fund,” said Dr. Noelie Rodriguez, one of the event’s organizers.  “When candidates don’t have to spend time dialing for dollars, they can spend more time figuring out how to make the county better for everyone,” she said.

The crowd at the Capitol included many younger people, including Jennifer Ruggles, a Voter Owned Hawaii intern, who said “This pay-to-play system of elections just isn’t sustainable for the long term.  We need to address the issue of money in politics and publicly funded elections is the best place to start, and it needs to get adequate funding.”

To provide an alternative model to the outdated statewide partial funding program for elections, citizen advocates convinced legislators to implement a pilot program for Big Island County Council elections starting in 2010.

“Special interest money really undermines our system and we are very glad to have five councilors elected without accepting any,” said Rodriguez.

Advocates will also propose legislation this coming session to overhaul the statewide partial funding program.  Implemented in 1978, the program was meant to limit the influence of special interest money on elections and laws passed by politicians.  Over time, citizens say, the program became obsolete and now does not provide candidates with competitive sums of money.

“It’s a shame the 1978 program was never kept up to date and has become obsolete,” said Kory Payne, executive director for Voter Owned Hawaii.  “After the Citizens United court decision, people are finally ready to see the public funding program work once again,” he added.

In Hawaii there appears to be overwhelming support for a public funding program for elections that grants competitive amounts of money to candidates.  In a 2005 poll conducted by AARP, 86% of voting age Hawaii residents thought campaign contributions moderately or greatly influenced policies supported by elected officials.

 

House Kills Law That Would Adjust Big Island Public Funding Pilot

Media Release:

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today for a case that challenges one piece of Arizona’s Clean Elections law, which was enacted by voters through a ballot referendum 13 years ago.  This is significant for Hawaii because our pilot public funding law on the Big Island is modeled after Arizona’s.

In anticipation of a negative ruling by the Supreme Court, Fair Elections advocates submitted legislation that would adjust the specific piece of the program that would be affected by the court case.

“Even though the Supreme Court upheld the idea of public funding for elections in the 1976, we’ve seen a new trend with the current makeup of the Supreme Court,” said Kory Payne, executive director for Voter Owned Hawaii.  “In the expectation of a negative ruling from the Supreme Court, we submitted legislation this year that would have adjusted Hawaii’s law preemptively.  That law was killed by Representative Keith-Agaran in the House Judiciary Committee,” he said.

John McComish

John McComish, an Arizona Republican running for state office, originally filed the complaint against their Clean Elections program.  McComish was running against a publicly funded competitor.  Like Hawaii’s law, publicly funded candidates can receive limited amounts of matching funds when their privately funded opponents outspend them.

Proponents of Hawaii’s pilot Fair Elections pilot program say this is a good thing.  “We don’t let people pay judges when they’re interpreting laws, so why would we want private money to determine what laws are made in the first place?” said Payne.

Since the addition of Justice John Roberts during the Bush administration, the U.S. Supreme Court has demonstrated a willingness to step in on campaign finance issues.  Last year, they made a controversial ruling on the case Citizens United v FEC.

After McComish lost his case in a lower court, the Supreme Court stepped in and blocked enforcement of Arizona’s provision last June and decided to hear the case.  This, say advocates of Fair Elections laws, is alarming.

In 1978 Hawaii created its original public funding program during the Constitutional Convention.  The Campaign Spending Commission and the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund were established then, and voters were able to try to qualify to receive public funds.  Advocates lobbied for a modernization to this program in the form of the Big Island pilot.

“Hawaii was ahead of our time when we created the public funding option in 1978, but since then the program has become ineffective and outdated,” said Payne.  “The Big Island pilot program is an exciting new way to resurrect our effort to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics,” he added.

Public Funding Pilot Limits Outside Influence

Media Release:

The story dates back to the 1978 Constitutional Convention. At that time, voters in Hawaii decided they did not want outside interests funding Hawaii’s elections and influencing her laws, so they created the partial public funding system that still exists today. Since then, however, election costs have skyrocketed, and the partial public funding system is rarely used.

In reaction, citizen activists pushed for a full public funding option to keep publicly funded candidates competitive with those raising increasing amounts of private money. In 2008, a law was passed that created Act 244, a pilot program for Hawaii County Council elections, which allows candidates to attempt to qualify for full public funds to run their campaigns.

“Instead of looking to mainland architecture and development firms, this program gives Council candidates an alternative option for raising funds,” said Kory Payne, Executive Director for Voter Owned Hawaii, an organization that advocated for the program. “Now many candidates are not dialing for dollars, but going into their districts, registering voters, and collecting qualifying signatures and contributions,” he added.

The money for candidates comes from the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is funded by voluntary check offs on state income tax forms. As of July, the Fund had over $5 million. One area of controversy in Act 244, was a fiscal cap added by legislators, mandating that Hawaii County Council elections cannot pull more than $350,000 out of the Election Fund for the pilot program.

“We explained to legislators that it was highly unlikely the pilot program would ever exceed $600,000, but still the $350,000 cap was put in place,” said Payne. “In the upcoming legislative session, we’ll be advocating for legislation to raise that $350,000 cap,” he said.

This year, the program used a total of $140,188 after eight candidates qualified for full public funds. Sixteen candidates filed “intents” to try to qualify using the program. In order to qualify, the candidates needed to collect 200 signatures from registered voters within their districts, and each signature had to be accompanied with a $5 check or money order.

Kory Payne
Voter Owned Hawaii

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