Ugly Election Brings Home Need For Campaign Finance Reform

Nov 1, 2014

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

That mighty “whoosh!” you’ll be hearing in a few days will be a collective sigh of relief from Illinoisans as one of the nastiest election seasons in recent memory blessedly draws to a close.

In the marquee event, of course, voters will decide the state’s next governor, choosing between Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees — oops, I mean Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn or Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, must have seen one too many campaign hit pieces — or opting for Libertarian Chad Grimm, standing in for “neither of the above.”

Whoever wins the Executive Mansion, one thing has been clear for months — the 2014 governor’s race will go down as the most costly by far in state history. A month before Election Day, Quinn and Rauner had raised between them almost $70 million, $23 million for Quinn and $46 million for Rauner, including almost $17 million from the private equity investor’s own resources. As a point of comparison, Republican Jim Edgar and Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch together spent only $12.4 million in 1994; four years ago, Quinn and his GOP opponent, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, spent almost $44 million.

And as anyone knows who’s watched TV, listened to the radio or been on social media during what seems like forever, a good chunk of that mountain of cash has been spent to vilify the other guy, in an effort to cast each in the most despicable light possible. Savvy folks know to take all the negative ads with a ton of salt — you don’t really believe those weight loss infomercials, do you? — but it’s still depressing.

“People are sick of it, they’re turned off by it, they don’t want to vote,” observes Susan Garrett, chair of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a former state legislator. “It’s negative for Illinois.”

A bigger problem than public distaste is the common perception, supported by academic research, that big money buys access and influence among elected officials not available to average citizens, thus eroding public confidence in government.

For more than a generation, reformers have tried to rein in the disproportionate impact of big money on elections, only to be thwarted by the U.S. Supreme Court, going back to a 1974 decision that invalidated spending limits on First Amendment grounds, to the 2010 Citizens United ruling that essentially nullified contribution limits by opening the door to so-called super PACs acting independently of candidates. Among the casualties: the limits finally enacted by Illinois in 2009, one of the last states to do so. True, restrictions on direct donations remain on the books, but the independent expenditure loophole opened by the high court makes them all but useless in holding down the money flow into the system.

“The 2009 law limited private money coming into the system,” explains Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield and the state’s foremost authority on campaign finance. “The Supreme Court then gutted the reform by letting corporate money in without disclosure.”

Who do you want paying for campaigns? Now, it's the deepest pockets — wealthy individuals, the super PACs, the special interests, folks who want access. Under a small donor system, all of us would be paying so that the politicians would be more responsible.

So reformers have shifted their sights, and now are looking for ways to empower everyday citizens to offset the influence of the mega donors and special interests. One possibility under consideration is small donor matching, a system under which candidates would rely primarily on smaller donations from average citizens, which then would be matched by public funds.

The goal would be to reduce the influence of big money on elections. In addition, proponents say, the small donor plan would have the added benefit of generating grassroots support for a candidate, who presumably would be more in touch with constituents’ concerns than someone being bankrolled by a handful of mega-rich contributors. Such a system also would encourage people of average means to seek office by enabling them to run competitive campaigns without becoming indebted to special interest groups. As a result, “you’d have more diverse candidates, more in touch with their own constituents,” Garrett predicts.

The reformers’ shift in emphasis away from limits recognizes the reality of modern-day politics — competitive campaigns are extremely costly. So the basic question is, “Who do you want paying for campaigns?” says Carl Johnson, the reform group’s lead researcher on small donor systems. “Now, it’s the deepest pockets — wealthy individuals, the super PACs, the special interests, folks who want access.” Under a small donor system, he says, “All of us would be paying so that the politicians would be more responsible.”

While a relatively new idea in Illinois, the small donor concept has been in place in New York City for more than 20 years, and a half dozen or so other states and several cities have programs in place. In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, mayoral candidates receive a $50 match for every contribution of $25 or greater and a 2-to-1 match for lesser amounts. The program provides matching funds up to $125,000 to those candidates who meet a threshold of 200 contributions from distinct donors — all local residents — within the range of $10 to $370, according to the campaign reform group.

Programs in other locales have differing rules and matching limits, covering such details as what offices are included, what qualifications candidates need to be eligible to participate, what formula is used for the matches and whether they are capped — can candidates also accept outside funds, for example to compete against someone who’s not participating in the program but is well-funded from other sources? A big question is how the match is funded — only with taxpayers’ dollars, or through a combination of public and private donations. The overall goal is the same, however: Limit the impact super-rich donors and cash-flush special interests now have on elections and, by extension, on the decisions made by the winning candidates.

To get the program started here, Garrett and her team are working with village officials in Oak Park with the support of village president Anan Abu-Taleb. If all goes well, the village could have a small donor program in place for municipal elections next spring, when half the village board seats will be up, or at the least, residents will have a chance to weigh in on the idea by referendum.

The owner of a popular village eatery, Abu-Taleb was a newcomer to politics when he won the top spot last year, and at a recent forum he mused how a small donor system might have played in his campaign.

“The status quo nowadays is that in most localities there is usually some sort of an association that basically slates our elected officials,” he says. “It’s very difficult for people like me, who have not been in government before, who have not had the blessing of such a machine to really be able to make a dent in that system.”

Garrett is hopeful that a successful rollout in Oak Park will encourage other cities, and ultimately the state, to adopt some version of a small donor matching system.

“It’s not a panacea to get big money out of elections,” she says, “but it’s a step in that direction. It’s a way to begin to address the problem.”

Charles N. Wheeler III is the director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, November 2014