Since Bernie ran for president, there has been nationwide talk about our desperate need to get Big Money out of our elections, and the need for public financing of campaigns.  Ironically, back home in Vermont, the Attorney General has set back clean elections by decades.

Democracy doesn’t just mean the right to vote.  It also means that the 99% can run for elected office too.  If only the wealthy, or those backed by Big Money or corporations can run competitive campaigns for office, we live in a plutocracy, not a democracy, no matter who wins.  That’s why in the 1990s, Vermont’s legislature created a process whereby those with significant public support can run with public money.  The legislature said such Public Finance was the antidote to corruption.

Over his years as Attorney General, Bill Sorrell acted several times to make it harder to use Public Finance.  In in 2014, when I was the first in ten years to use it, to run for Lt. Governor (as the nominee of both the Progressive and Democratic parties), Sorrell threatened me because the Democratic chair sent out an email supporting me.  That was contrary not only to Vermont law, but also the US Constitution which guarantees us the right to free political speech and free association.  With the Progressive Party and other Lt. Governor candidates, including current Lt. Governor David Zuckerman, I brought a civil rights suit against the AG in federal court to protect those fundamental First Amendment rights.  Sorrell then sued me in state court.  Despite the fact that no campaign had ever paid for a party email, and that we in fact even tried to pay for it, he claimed the email was an illegal contribution worth $255 and warranted a fine of $72,000.  So, aside from being entirely false, it was both the largest elections penalty ever sought and the smallest violation ever prosecuted.

Until this case is won, no one can dare use public financing in Vermont.  It has been eliminated despite the clear intention of the legislature.

We live in a country where the super-wealthy and corporations can spend virtually unlimited funds, often in secret, to influence our politics.  That is not democracy, and the candidates whose offices are so purchased work to undermine the twin pillars of democracy: public education and free communications.   The wealthy contributors they serve own the media, and work to shift support to private education.  Not surprisingly, their policies have turned many away from involvement in public life, and led to the greatest disparity in income and wealth in the US since the Great Depression.  They have not only sabotaged the well-being of the vast majority of Americans, but threaten the fundamental stability of our nation.

Big Money drowns out, and is the opposite of, free speech.  And when it dominates our elections, it is the opposite of democracy, and undermines confidence in democratic government altogether.  Realizing this, Vermont, like several other states, created a public finance system (so far limited to Governor and Lt. Governor), so that anyone who can demonstrate strong public support, by raising a large number of small donations, regardless of personal wealth, or the wealth of their friends, friendly corporations or PACs, can qualify for a public campaign grant to get out the basic information voters need to make an informed election decision.

In passing broad campaign finance reforms in the 1990s, the Vermont  legislature expressed concern about the effect of big money stifling robust debate and undermining “citizen interest, participation and confidence in the electoral process.”  Specifically, in creating the public financing option, it found that:

“Public financing of campaigns…

… will increase citizen participation and will limit the time spent soliciting contributions, and will reduce the need of elected officials to respond to, and provide access to, contributors.  As a result candidates will be freed to devote more time and energy to debate of the issues and elected officials will be able to spend more time responding to constituents and to performing their official duties.

…  will level the financial playing field among candidates and provide resources to independent candidates, both of which will increase the debate of issues and ideas.”

Publicly-funded election campaigns have many benefits, supported by research based on decades of experience in a number of states and cities:

  • reducing the opportunity for corruption
  • promoting confidence in government
  • promoting contested and competitive elections
  • fostering diversity in the electoral process
  • encourages positive, voter-centered campaigns

Of these, only the first – preventing outright corruption – is generally respected by the US Supreme Court, and of course, such “quid pro quo” corruption (like a blatant bribe) is minor compared to the control exercised by Big Money over the flow of political information, and the entire public agenda.  And, despite all the well-known anti-democratic Supreme Court decisions favoring corporations and Big Money, there is a silver lining:  in 2011 the Court clearly upheld the constitutionality of public financing as “legitimately furthering significant governmental interests, such as the state interest in preventing corruption.”  While its reasoning is far too limited, the Court’s support for public financing can bring us all those other benefits.

In fact, Vermont can and should own its own elections by publicly financing all state races.  This could be done by spending only a tiny fraction (less than 0.1%) of the money that those elected decide on every year in the state budget.  Unfortunately, publicly financed campaigns as well as crowd-sourcing of small contributions are under legal attack in Vermont, which only serves to increase the power of Big Money.

After three years, while the judge has indicated skepticism about the AG ever having had any case at all, we will finally get our day in court on the state case on the 2014 election.  And our federal civil rights case is now before the 2nd Circuit in New York.  The only problem, is that while the AG has unlimited (and unaccounted-for) resources, the legal work has cost us over $31,000 so far and is rising.  Vermonters who care about clean elections have provided $14,000 of that sum to date, and we are reaching out for additional support.

The new AG, TJ Donovan, despite campaigning on reforming elections enforcement and skepticism about this case, has so far allowed it to continue.  Meanwhile, others have attacked the use of crowd-funding of campaigns, like Bernie Sanders and others have used so successfully.  Those on the right would like only candidates supported by the Koch brothers and the 1% to be able to get competitive funding.

Once we get past all this litigation, we can again focus on moving clean elections forward in the legislature.  The future of our democracy requires a return to competitive chances for the 99%, and as we have on so many public issues, Vermont can and should lead the way.

– Dean Corren, member of Clean Elections Project, an Allied Group of the PJC