Tomorrow Massachusetts voters will decide one of the most important ballot questions in the country. Dubbed the Clean Elections Initiative by its supporters, Ballot Question 2 would revamp the state's campaign finance laws, introducing public financing to all races from governor to state representative. Opponents of the law claim its cost, estimated at $56 million, would require new taxes or cuts from other state programs like education and health care. But the benefits the law promises--cleaner, fairer elections beyond the influence of "soft money" contributors--far outweigh its price tag.
The new law would forbid candidates who wish to receive public campaign funds from accepting contributions exceeding $100 from any person or political action committee (PAC). This change would break the grip of PACs on campaign financing and free candidates from the distraction of fundraising. It would also ensure that qualified candidates are able to run for office regardless of their own economic background. Hopefully, this will enable candidates to be judged on their ideas, not on the commercials they are able to afford.
Question 2 would also limit the amount of funds a candidate could receive from their party--so-called "soft money" transfers. Closing these oft-abused loopholes in the current financing laws would safeguard Massachusetts elections from the influence of lobbying groups.
This law, if passed, will no doubt be challenged on the grounds that it restricts the right to free speech. This argument--that restricting contributions to candidates is equivalent to silencing the contributors--is misleading. No campaign finance law prohibits contributing to any candidate or party. Instead, it is the magnitude of individual contributions these laws seek to limit. In the case of Question 2, the law in fact would require support to be shown in the form of contributions--candidates for governor, for instance, must garner 6,000 contributions of $5 to $100 to be eligible for public funds.
Campaign finance reform laws do recognize, however, that the equation of money with speech is fundamentally undemocratic. The current campaign finance system accords an unjust amount of power to the rich. Political donations are a form of speech, to be sure, but $5 contributions are meaningless when dwarfed by $10,000 contributions from wealthy individuals. If anything, it is the current system that is restricting the right to free speech.
If Question 2 and a similar question on the Arizona ballot succeed, Congress would be well advised to listen to the message voters are sending. Despite many years of promises of campaign finance reform, little progress has been made in Washington. The Shays-Meehan bill, which would have banned "soft money" contributions and which passed in the House despite the objections of the Republican leadership, died in the Senate.
The states are starting to take the initiative themselves, but campaign finance is most desperately needed on the national level. We hope Massachusetts voters will take this chance to reform the system here, and that Washington will follow their lead.