Commentary, Defending Democracy

Hayes-Lindberg scandal demands a revival of publicly financed elections

More than 80 percent of Americans believe that elected officials do favors for big campaign donors, according to a recent national poll. Recently, a billionaire campaign donor attempted to secure just such a favor—right here in North Carolina. With the chairman of the state Republican Party Robin Hayes (pictured at left) recently indicted in a scheme to undermine the public trust by orchestrating a bribe of state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, it’s clear that protections that shield our democracy from abuse are broken.

Time and time again, we see it’s too easy for moneyed special interests to crowd out everyday people in backroom deals. The indictment of Hayes paints a picture of a campaign donor, Greg Lindberg, asking for a clear quid pro quo—campaign cash in exchange for favorable treatment by the government.

This unfolding case reminds us that North Carolina needs to revive laws that were designed to combat the influence of wealthy special interests by supporting small-donors with public financing. North Carolina had a system of public financing for statewide judicial races and elections for insurance commissioner, state auditor, and state superintendent. This program allowed judges and regulators to avoid relying on large contributions from wealthy donors like Lindberg.

Public servants like Causey shouldn’t have to balance the desires of the public with the pressure to please big-money interests. When quid pro quo deals are allowed to take place in our democracy, they subvert the voices of the people, who elected public officials to serve their interests, not wealthy special interests.

Sadly, this recent development only reinforces what many North Carolinians have been feeling for some time now: that their voices are not heard, and that their government fails to represent their concerns or meet their needs.

Voters want to believe in their democracy again. For that to happen, we need to enact common-sense reforms to cure our broken political system. North Carolina’s successful experiment in small donor public financing met its demise in 2013, even though it was a model program for how states can keep public officials from feeling beholden to moneyed interests.

It’s time to return to small donor public financing to ensure that everyone’s voice matters, counts, and is heard. Not only must we reinstate public financing for state insurance commissioner elections, we should go a step further and expand it to all Council of State offices as well as statewide judicial elections. Our state’s motto is “Esse quam videri” — Latin for “to be rather than to seem.”

If the motto is going to retain any real meaning, it’s essential that we demand a democracy that is truly—rather than just seemingly—of, by, and for the people.

Melissa Price Kromm is the Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections

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