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Clean Money: Better Elections

by Charlotte Laws Friday, Feb. 20, 2009 at 9:34 AM

Clean money means accountability to voters, not special interests. It gives the ordinary citizen access to candidates. It levels the playing field and increases voter participation.

The Greater Valley Glen Council hosted a Clean Money Workshop at Kittridge Elementary School on January 17, 2009, exploring the question of whether local elections should be fully financed with public funds, and if so, what the process should entail. Robin Gilbert and Trina Ray, volunteers with the California Clean Money Campaign, supplied a video and PowerPoint presentation and asked participants to fill out a four page questionnaire.

Months ago, the Los Angeles City Council Rules and Finance Committee said they wanted feedback from neighborhood councils before entertaining the issue of publicly funded elections and before asking the LA Ethics Commission to draft legislation. Thirty-five clean money workshops have been conducted around the city, and according to Gilbert and Ray, the input from participants has been enthusiastic and illuminating.

Arizona and Maine currently have clean money elections as do the cities of Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since the implementation of public financing, they have realized an increase in voter participation and in female and minority candidates, as well as a decline in special interest influence.

How might this process work? If a candidate opts to abide by public financing, he or she would be allowed to come up with seed money (to open a campaign office, make flyers, etc.) possibly not exceeding $10,000 for a City Council race or $25,000 for a Mayoral race. In order to qualify for the ballot and demonstrate his or her viability, the candidate would have to get a set number of five dollar donations (i.e. 750) from registered voters in his or her district. These donations would go directly to a common fund. Then all clean money candidates would be given an initial sum for their campaigns. They would be given matching funds later, if necessary, so as not to be outspent by opponents who have declined to participate in public financing. Eventually, privately financed candidates would realize it was not in their best interest to fundraise furiously because their clean money opponents would receive the same funds with no effort.

Candidates would be able to concentrate on ideas and communicate with voters, and the amount of money spent on political campaigns would naturally decrease over time. A statewide clean-money system would cost Californians $3 to $5 per person; implementation citywide would cost less.

Voter turnout for the 2007 Los Angeles city elections was a meager 10%, and 72% of the money for city council races came from outside the district, usually from large donors. Seventy-eight percent of the time LA city council races are won by those who raise the most money. In Arizona, before public financing, 79% of the elections were won by the candidate with the most cash, yet after public funding, the individual with the most money won only two percent of the time.

Clean money means accountability to voters, not special interests. It gives the ordinary citizen access to candidates. It levels the playing field and increases voter participation. Contact www.caclean.org to participate in an upcoming workshop.


Charlotte Laws is the Chair of the Government Relations Committee for the Greater Valley Glen Council and a former Los Angeles Commissioner.
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