Clean elections on the march?

By Paul Gronke of Portland, Oregon. Paul is a political science professor at Reed College and describes himself as a "scholar, runner, homeowner, parent, DLC type Democrat."

I'm not sure if readers have been paying attention to the excellent series of stories on the 2006 election being presented by NOW--a public affairs series hosted by David Brancaccio.

(You might remember that NOW, previously hosted by Bill Moyers, was accused of liberal bias by a study commissioned by the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Some believe this led to Moyer's departure, the reduction in the show to a half hour, and the move of "POV" to late night positions on many PBS affiliates.)

But whether you think NOW is liberal or conservative, there's no denying their excellent journalistic reports on the election, including shows on voting machines, the influence of blogs, and voter ID and minority vote suppresssion. The full archive of stories is here.

The October 20 story may be of interest to those still wondering about the future of "clean" or "voter-owned" elections in Portland. The Arizona politicians interviewed in the story -- from moderate Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano to conservative Republican state legislator Doug Quelland -- say they support the current system.

But as the movement for publicly financed elections grows beyond its current base in Arizona and Maine (and the City of Portland) to a real battleground -- California -- the debate is heating up. Proposition 89 is being considered this November. You can read about it at and

The official voter's guide is here.

Will this pass in California? Will this influence Oregonians?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    The NOW coverage was very good, and Clean Money is a great idea. It's not so easy to put into practice, unfortunately. The only reported poll numbers I could find from prop 89 show a 61% no vote versus 25 % yes. This is going to be hard to overcome. The people of Massachusetts passed a Clean Money intitiative, which their legislature repealed when faced with a court order to fund the system [this is why Fair Elections Measure 46 requires 3/4 legislative majorities to change voter passed reform]. Portland City Council made the gutsy decision to institute Clean Money financing, but polls showed it would have been repealed by voters if the opposition did not botch the signature gathering drive.

    Clean Money's biggest problem, besides the opposition of most big campaign contributors, regardless of ideology, is this talking point: Public financing is welfare for politicians. Repeated enough times on TV, radio, and print ads, this is a very effective argument with voters, especially when state and local government is having a hard time funding basic services.

    But Clean Money campaign financing is a good idea. Once Fair elections Measures 46 & 47 are working, I hope various Oregon groups can come together to put Clean Money on the ballot here [the chance of it coming out of the Legislature is not good]. With contribution limits in place, the cost of public financing comes down, as the public fund will not need to provide matching funds when privately financed candidates raise obscenely large amounts of money.

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    Funding for the opposition to Prop 89 is provided by an alliance of big corporations and most unions. Their focus-grouped, poll-tested arguments against Prop 89 (too complicated, lose freedom of speech, poorly drafted, unintended consequences) are virtually identical to those use by the corporate and union opponents of Measures 47 and 47 here. And in California the opponents are spending far more than the supporters. Same here. The Oregonian has for 2 days running falsely reported that the supporters of the campaign finance reform measures are spending more, since the measures qualified, but that is 100% false. The opponents are outspending us by nearly 3-1.

  • Frank Carper (unverified)

    Tom. Dan. We're all keenly aware of your feelings on 46 and 47. But this post is about public financing, not your proposals.

    If you want to talk about the measures, go to the appriopriate post. Or hit the streets or a phone bank or something. It's wearing a little thin here.

  • KISS (unverified)

    We never miss "NOW", to bad it is only a 20 minute show. PBS has expanded the web version and it is good. Clean money works in Arizona and the "NOW" program even documented a republican using and in favor of such. David Brancaccio is much better than Moyer's for us. I wonder what kind of ratings "NOW" generates? Intelligent programs never do sad.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    A wise person once said that everything is connected. True or not, Clean Money and Fair Elections certainly are connected.

    Sorry things are thin for you.

  • MsBlue (unverified)

    Suppose 46 and 47 fail, but we win control of the State House, Senate and Governor's office. We should certainly see Unions and NGOs putting their money and effort into getting a clean elections proposal that they like before the legislature. Will all concerned find one they judge "wonderful" to get enacted in Salem and supported in the initiative that follows?

    What can we all get behind?

    Maybe we should simply replicate Maine or Arizona. The arguments against it being thrown out in the courts or handcuffing unions and NGO's should evaporate, right

    It's time for a change. The only thing good about the current situation is that it does get lots of money into circulation, a significant portion of which is from outside the state. You could say Oregon’s candidate and initiative elections are a niche industy for Oregon.

  • Two Words (unverified)

    Emilie Boyles.

  • JB Eads (unverified)

    Got Caught.

  • lw (unverified)

    Got Caught? No consequences. No Jail. No Penalties. Got Job. Free.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Clean money is a joke.

    There will always be a way to game the system (with third party expenditures, consultants who work for below market rates, and "volunteers" that are normally employed by the XYZ union local, but are working on the campaign full time).

    The incumbents recognize that spending parity gives them a huge advantage. That's why they all voted in favor of VOE.

    How do you compensate challengers for all the media coverage devoted to the incumbents in the news?

    The incumbent already holds the reigns of power in their hands, and they already have a loyal following of those who have benefitted from their policies.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    Although I think some kind of clean-money approach to elections is a good idea, I am increasingly convinced that the PDX version or any version which is based primarily on the concept of limiting what can be spent is not a mature or intelligent solution to the problem. It is typical of the incompetence of our times when it comes to self-governance that we have not honestly appraised this concept from that fundamental perspective.

    At base, the actual admitted intent of this approach is to limit the amount and nature of mass communication we have with each other, rather than more equitably distribute that resource, and I defy anyone to make a credible, intellectually-sound case that this limit, rather than re-distribute, approach is a plausible solution, much less is in the best interest of society.

    To paraphrase the ACLU, the best defense of free speech and the rest of our freedoms is more, not less speech. That's why the Founder's gave us the 1st Amendment, and it is poorly thought out solutions like this that they most feared. No progressive can possibly line up behind intentionally limiting speech for any reason but expediency. This is distinguished from my argument that, to the extent there is an actual or legislated extrinsic limit on the amount of communication resources available, we should use all of those available resources and concentrate instead on approaches which result in their more equitable distribution.

    There are several principled ways in which these resources can be more equitably distributed that go some way towards levelling the playing field:

    1) Restore the concept that the public airwaves are the property of the people and make it a condition of the license that licensees must make time available to all comers during a designated period before the election. And legislate a new version of the Fairness Doctrine on licensees. I don't care if licensees don't make money during that period - I don't see anything in the law or the Constitution that even remotely says they have a right to make money over the right of the people to fair elections that result in good governance. And for you right-wing/libertarian whackjobs for whose selfish ignorance I have little patience on this matter: The property rights argument is on the side of the people, not the corporations, because it is our property, not theirs.

    2) Make it a condition of cable franchise licenses that they too must provide time on cable channels covered by their franchise for all comers during the same period. Again, I don't care if they don't make a cent during that period, if they want to use our rights-of-way for their services, they will have to make the time available and thank us for the opportunity.

    3) As they do in several democracies around the world, enforce a silence on all political advertising on the public airwaves and cable systems for the week before the election. (In Oregon, this would also require us to revisit our inane VBM system - but we've already had that argument where no one has even gotten close to advanced a fact-based argument how the system benefits us.) Right-wing and left-wing courts have long ago established that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech" means local, state, and federal legislative bodies can make laws "abridging the freedom of speech" when they judge it is in the best interest of society . I don't agree with many of the arguments in this regard, but I have no problem using them now - and shoving them right down the throat of those who made them - when it genuinely is in the best interest of our society as it is here.

    4) Create a special class of postage rates for political mailings. I may agree candidates could send their mailings at prohibitively expensive first-class rates (which would disproportionately sap their resources for little return), but they could not, at the penalty of criminal prosecution, mail political materials at commercial or non-profit bulk rates. Political mailings would be a designated class of mail that has favorable rates for some period up to 14 days before the election cycle, would be free during a short period for delivery in the 7-9 days before the election, and could not be mailed at all during the last week. Again it has been well established that government may regulate what can be mailed, and can set different rates for different types of mailings. (I know the Post Office is an "independent" corporation, Congress still has authority to regulate the operation of the Post Office for this purpose.)

    5) Make certain types of voter profile data maintained, and which could be maintained, by our government, available to all candidates over the internet at no cost. One way to do this would be to contract with some of the private data providers in a way that would use the enormous buying power of local, state, and federal governmental entities to negotiate very favorable rates - perhaps including tax advantages. By partially drying up the private market for this data to a great extent through steps 1)-4), we would make it in the best interest of data providers to provide data wholesale in this way. Actually, I think it would be most cost effective for the government to take on this task entirely, but this privatization approach with only one real market would remove any credible "free-enterprise" argument against it from the right wing whackjob contingent. I know if I were a data provider, I would love to have a guaranteed contract for some period to provide such data. Particularly if I could still use the data even though it would be owned by the people and would have to be made available to the next contractor at no cost.

    If those who are willing to use tax dollars for candidates to run their election campaigns (which I do support), are also willing to work hard for paternalistic solutions (which I personally find to be too typical of the incompetence of our time and also in this upper-left corner of the country despite our purported libertarian roots), why would they not be willing to instead work to re-assert the legitimate rights of the people to insure that publicly-owned and publicly-controlled communications media are used fairly, largely irrespective of the ability to pay, in the best interest of insuring good governance?

  • askquestions (unverified)

    I didn't take up the question of newspapers and the internet in the previous post because it was already too long. And because I expect people will come back with arguments concerning the internet.

    Suffice it to say for now that newspapers are dying because of the internet. And that 1) the cost of internet speech is very low right now, as well as 2) you're seriously kidding yourself if you don't believe we will be entering a new era of regulation for internet speech over the next 5 years regardless of whether the Dems (DLC or otherwise) or Repubs hold power. Just look at what is happening in the EU with regard to regulation of the internet and public speech. I suggest that we can get ahead of the curve with regard to internet regulation by working on creative approaches which assure equitable distribution of resources rather than imposed financial limitations on use.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    That was an elegant and well put together idea, but I think it rests on a faulty premise. You begin with:

    " the actual admitted intent of this approach is to limit the amount and nature of mass communication we have with each other"

    Neither public financing or contribution limits are adopted in order to limit communication. That may or may not be an outcome, but the intent is to free candidates from the influence of big campaign contributors, making it more likely that government will reflect the will and interest of the voters. This is, after all, the way that representative democracy is supposed to work. The present system of funding campaigns guarantees sweetheart deals and subversion of voter interests.

    clean Money might actually increase the amount of money in campaigns. Fair elections will reduce big campaign contributions, but the changed nature of elections may produce a much higher participation by way of small donor committees. Motivation could be enhanced by issuing $50 contributions coupons to voters instead of allowing an equal credit on the Oregon Income tax form.

    Either way, the aim is better government, not less communication.

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    Motivation could be enhanced by issuing $50 contributions coupons to voters

    Seriously, the $50 democracy vouchers idea is the one that makes the most sense. It eliminates the Emilie Boyles problem of having a low cash threshold that triggers a big windfall.

    It will turn grassroots organizing into a fundraising activity -- and the candidates and organizations that can organize the most people will win.

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    lean Money's biggest problem, besides the opposition of most big campaign contributors, regardless of ideology, is this talking point: Public financing is welfare for politicians.

    It's really welfare for corporate media. The politicians are only intermediaries.

    Restore the concept that the public airwaves are the property of the people and make it a condition of the license that licensees must make time available...

    Exactly. The airways are the property of the people. We shouldn't have to spend hundreds of millions to have public discourse in this country. We need to aggresively assert our ownership rights, get off our friggin' knees raising money whoring for the Paul Romaines of the world, and restore some semblance of thoughtful discussion of policy issues back into the public arena.

    The idea that we, the people, actually own the airwaves is not a radical one. The fact is we do.

  • Frank Kirkwood (unverified)

    Maybe everybody knows this already, but if you want to see if your candidates for Congress support publicly funded elections you can look it up at VotersFirstPledge (.org). If they don’t support it, ask them “Why not?”.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Yep, it's a good idea. The question is getting it passed, either through the Legislature or by initiative.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    Tom Civiletti -

    Thanks for your comment, but I have to disagree with this:

    but I think it rests on a faulty premise. You begin with:

    " the actual admitted intent of this approach is to limit the amount and nature of mass communication we have with each other"

    Neither public financing or contribution limits are adopted in order to limit communication. That may or may not be an outcome, but the intent is to free candidates from the influence of big campaign contributors, making it more likely that government will reflect the will and interest of the voters

    I suggest this is not a faulty premise, and in fact is not actually a premise at all, It is really a deductive conclusion from other realities, stated there as the starting point of the comment in the interest of trying to shorten an already too long comment. I'd argue instead that the claim of proponents that the intent is to free candidates from the influence of big campaign contributors is actually the faulty premise because it is an internal contradiction with the proponents overall views and it conflicts with the legal and social realities of elections.

    A) In current forms these public-financing systems allow well-heeled candidates to opt out. Proponents are their own worst enemy in this regard because in their effort to create a system which rests on getting people to re-evaluate the meaning of free speech, they can only go so far in not allowing private money into the process. Opting out is the bottom-line compromise they will always have to agree to as the cost of getting such a system to pass legal and public opinion muster.

    B) A fair argument can be made that this will increase, not decrease disparities in access to communication resources. If you're someone who controls a communication resource wouldn't you first want to sell as much of that resource as you can at a higher unit cost to those with significantly more to spend? Particularly if your political inclinations already lean that way and you can justify it as your fiducial obligation to your shareholders or private equity owners?

    C) So we are left with unforeseeable mix of two outcomes: 1) An increased disparity between those who have the money to actually communicate loudly and on their own terms, and the general noise of an almost undifferentiable passel of candidates with relatively limited resources to communicate. And 2) A limit on the total amount of communications by the passel to whom those who control the communications channel are not inclined to devote increasing supply to when they can instead sell those communications at a higher per-unit price to those who opt out.

    D) Faced with these realities, based on the process to date we can reasonably predict proponents will react emotionally and spend most of their time trying to enact increasingly Byzantine schemes to try to limit the communications ability of the well funded. In their nirvana, they would be successful in capping how much could be spent on communications even by those who opt out.

    The end result of this scheme is in fact an impulse translated into practice by proponents to focus on limiting communications (after all their initial goal was to level the playing field which mainly involves giving everybody the same size megaphone), and the side effect of legitimizing private control of communications channels, which in fact are owned by the public, for the financial advantage of those private interests. Frank Dufay said it succinctly:

    It's really welfare for corporate media. The politicians are only intermediaries.


    It would be great if we could make public financing of elections a reality, but as Frank Dufay pointed out, the starting point is regaining control of our communications resources.

    And not to be personal here, but Paul Gronke started his thread by self-identifying himself as being, surprise, surprise, a DLC type Democrat. That opens up a whole 'nother aspect of the debate that there is not space or interest to delve into here.

  • Amanda Fritz (unverified)

    askquestions1st's list of communication solutions form a very impressive start to a conversation about what else needs to be done, in addition to Public Campaign Financing, to reach the goal of Voter Owned Elections. Thank you for taking the time to write and post it, aq1st.

  • (Show?)

    I'm not sure why Emilie Boyles is relevant here. The NOW stories are on the Arizona and Maine experience, which is significantly longer and more extensive than our own.

    Are you going to use an example of one bad apple or look at the whole tree?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    I still hold to my previous comment, but I'll move on to adress your latest statement.

    A) It's true that public financing must be voluntary to comply with court rulings regarding the 1st Amendment.

    B) True, but I don't think it will matter, because...

    C) Later clean Money systems include matching funds provisions, so that publicly funded candidates get more money when privately financed candidates spend considerably more than the public stipend. The media won't care where the money came from.

    D) I think you are trying to devine the intentions of campaign finance reformers, one of which I am. The amount of money spent in campaigns is trivial compared to the amounts spent by government, so I don't see the size of campaign spending as a problem. I do see the sources of the money as a problem, and the more money that comes from these sources, the bigger the problem is.

    It is true that contribution limits are synergistic with public financing, as difficulty in raising large amounts privately makes it more likely that candidates will opt-in to the public system.

    <h2>If, by your closing statement, you are supporting greater public benefit from public communication assets - such as the airwaves - I agree.</h2>
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