True campaign reform

Despite the so-called “campaign reform” of the McCain-Feingold bill, “pay-to-play” remains the name of the game in state and national elections. In the recent congressional races, for example, the candidates with the most money won 95 percent of all House races and 91 percent of all Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And most of those races, like Rep. Wally Herger’s cakewalk to re-election locally, were financially uncompetitive.

But there’s a ray of sunshine in this gloomy picture—two rays, actually, in Maine and Arizona. Both states have enacted Clean Money/Clean Elections systems, in which candidates for state office have the option of spurning private donations in exchange for public funding. More candidates than ever before used public funding—and more won election.

In Maine, as Micah Sifry reports at, a “whopping 83 percent of the state Senate (29 out of 35) and 77 percent of the House (116 out of 151) will be made up of legislators who ran clean"—an increase from 2002, when the figures were 77 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Just as important, both major parties are well represented among the clean legislators.

In Arizona, 42 candidates for the state Legislature were elected running clean, and all four winning candidates for the powerful Corporation Commission ran clean. Again, both Republicans and Democrats were well represented among the clean winners.

The success of public financing in these states is leading to similar systems elsewhere. In November, North Carolina offered public funding for top judicial offices; four of five open seats were won by clean candidates. Next November, New Jersey will be offering limited public funding, as will New Mexico in 2006. Efforts to establish similar systems in other states are moving forward.

This is change from the bottom up, which is always the best kind, and it could have profound consequences. All we need to do is imagine how much better politics would be if politicians didn’t have to beg for money and weren’t beholden to campaign contributors and then begin working to create clean systems. Maine and Arizona are showing the way.