Promoting clean, competitive elections

While federal campaign contributions balloon by the millisecond, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, voters here can take heart in the success of publicly funded state election campaigns.

Known as the Citizens' Election Program and signed into law by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2005, following pay-to-play scandals of predecessor John G. Rowland, public financing for state elections stands as a hallmark to which Connecticut should be proud.

The program's success is measured by the decline in the number of uncontested General Assembly races. In other words, an incumbent is increasingly more likely to face a challenger when public money is available to wage a campaign that might otherwise not be possible.

The voluntary program allows qualifying candidates for the General Assembly and six statewide offices to receive full public grants, enabling them to concentrate on issues rather than bow to special interests.

For the most part, general election grants are $26,850 for state representative candidates and $91,290 for state Senate candidates, according to the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which administers the program. Grants for primaries typically are $10,740 for representative candidates and $37,590 for Senate candidates. Arizona and Maine have similar programs, although candidate participation and grant amounts are much higher in Connecticut.

As noted by Bilal Dabir Sekou, board chairman of Common Cause - among campaign finance reform advocates that include this newspaper, the Connecticut Citizens Action Group and the League of Women Voters - the Citizens' Election Program frees candidates from the improper influence of large private contributions, while providing them relief from continually having to solicit contributions from those with an interest in legislation.

State contractors, political action committees, unions and corporations cannot contribute to publicly funded campaigns. Individuals and lobbyists in all races are limited to $100 contributions to such candidates. To receive public money, candidates must raise contributions in small amounts from many individual donors, and a cap exists on how much money can be donated from out of state, as well as a threshold as to the number of donations that must be collected from people within a candidate's district.

The number of General Assembly races with unopposed incumbents has declined sharply since the program's implementation in the 2008 election. According to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, the number of races uncontested by a major party in 2012 is about 41 percent lower than that of 2010. Thirty-two of 187 state Senate or House seats lacked either a Democratic or Republican candidate this year, as opposed to 54 unchallenged contests two years ago.

In the program's first run in 2008, 250 candidates participated, or 73 percent of all candidates running for the General Assembly, resulting in 78 percent of the legislators coming to office with the help of public financing, according to the Elections Enforcement Commission. In 2010, 74 percent of the current sitting legislators who came to office used the state grants, while it was utilized in all six campaigns for statewide office - governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of the state, treasurer and comptroller.

The Citizens' Election Program delivers positively on several levels.

It promotes contested and competitive elections by providing political newcomers the opportunity to mount effective campaigns against incumbents and to inform voters of their campaigns.

It promotes participation and civic engagement. When elections go uncontested, voters become less interested in voting. When more people are asked to make small campaign donations, they become invested in candidates and involved in the political process. The exact opposite happens in federal election campaigns, as a few elite donors deliver an enormous percentage of the total contributions.

It fosters diversity. Running for office becomes an attainable reality for historically underrepresented groups, including younger people, minorities and women, who might not be wealthy or have connections to well-heeled donors. In 2009, a state elections enforcement official testified before Congress that the number of women running for office in Connecticut was at an all-time high, and many credited public financing with allowing them to run, as cited by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Connecticut citizens should be proud and lawmakers given kudos for passing legislation leading to a more healthy electoral process to feed a robust democracy.

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