DISCLOSE Act Offers one step forward, but Citizen-Funded Elections still needed

Legislation introduced today by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) offers an important first remedy for blunting the impact of the this year’s controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (the ruling overturns federal and state bans on corporate and union financed election advertising during the run-up to election day, allowing corporations and other groups to spend whatever they want, whenever they want; see more here).

The legislation, entitled the DISCLOSE Act (in what is perhaps an acronym over-reach, it stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections), would strengthen disclosure and disclaimer requirements for all election spending by independent entities (corporations, non-profits, 527s, unions, et al) and bar spending from foreign-held corporations and corporations holding government contracts (of $50,000 or more).

The provision barring spending by corporations with government contracts could affect tens of thousands of corporations, including 75% of Fortune 100 companies, according to one study by two professors at Yale Law School. And the disclosure piece would crucially include new requirements for independent groups receiving outside financing (e.g. Citizens for a Clean Energy Future with financing from Exxon-Mobile) to disclaim their top five donors in all sponsored advertisements.

While government reform advocates applauded the DISCLOSE Act today as an important first step, they also urged Congress to go much further, and pair the legislation with the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill that would create a small donor-driven public campaign financing option for all U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates and create a viable way for candidates to run for office without any special interest or corporate-backed support.

“Now is the time for Congress to free itself from Wall Streets’ grip so Main Street can get a fair shake,” said Common Cause CEO and President Bob Edgar in a press release this afternoon. “The legislation introduced today is important, but to give Americans a voice in their democracy we need an alternative for candidates who don’t want to spend all their time courting special interests. The Fair Elections Now Act would do that, and must be part of Congress’ legislative response to the Citizens United decision.”

Susan Liss, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice echoed Edgar’s call for Congressional public financing. “We hope that Congress passes strong disclosure legislation. Another vital step for our democracy is for Congress to quickly move forward on small donor public financing, the Durbin-Larson bill,”

NC Voters for Clean Elections is urging the NC General Assembly to take a similar approach at the state level, and pass a combination of new disclosure laws and expanded public campaign financing programs this summer. Two public campaign financing bills are eligible to be considered during the short session, including a bill to make the Council of State pilot program permanent and applicable to additional offices (SB-20, SB-966) and a bill to authorize municipalities to create publicly financed Voter-Owned Elections programs in local elections (HB-120). Because of public financing program’s matching money provisions, they would provide some protection to candidates outspend by independent groups, including corporations.

States around the country have been considering dozens of different proposals to blunt the negative impact of Citizens United. The state of Iowa recently enacted a strong reform law, which includes stronger disclosure and disclaimer requirements, including a directive that corporate boards affirmatively and publicly approve political expenditures before they are made.


Quick Take: Campaign Finance Reform Updates

A few updates from the election reform advocacy community:

***On Monday, Durham’s city council unanimously approved a resolution asking for state permission to pursue local public campaign financing options. With its adoption, Durham joins the cities of Raleigh, Wilmington, and Greenville, who have all passed similar resolutions in recent months. The resolutions ask the General Assembly to pass legislation that would give permission to municipalities with more than 50,000 residents to explore public campaign financing options for non-partisan municipal elections. A bill passed by the state House in 2009, HB-120, grants this authorization, but it awaits approval in the state Senate. Read Durham blogger Nate Aspenson’s take.

***A new poll by the NC Center for Voter Education finds that North Carolinians overwhelmingly support a campaign finance reform overhaul. According to the survey, 71 percent of voters favor a major overhaul to the state’s campaign finance system. Just 6 percent favor the status quo.

***A report from Bob Hall at Democracy NC highlights the success of North Carolina’s judicial program. For the first time ever, 100% of candidates have declared their intent to participate in the program. (Meanwhile in states like Alabama, the judicial campaign money chase continues unabated).

***A new report from the Institute on Money and State Politics has found that the 2008 election cycle was the most expensive on record for state races. Nationwide, more than $3 billion was spent (including candidates, parties, 527’s, and ballot initiatives). And for the first time spending on state legislative races broken the $1 billion mark (a 26% increase from 2004). In North Carolina, total state spending was just under $100 million, including $42 million for the Governor’s race. The Institute predicts, that the 2010 election cycle could set an even higher record.

***Erik Ose has a great Op-Ed in the Chapel Hill News about Chapel Hill’s successful Voter-Owned Elections program.


A Disaster for Democracy (and what you can do about it)

The Orange County Progressive Democrats have organized a forum this Sunday to discuss the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC. The decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections with general treasury funds and is expected to bring even more special interest money into the political process.

Sunday’s forum will discuss the Constitutional and legal background of the ruling and current reform efforts that are being undertaken in response.

What: The Supreme Court Decision: A Disaster for Democracy

Where: Carrboro Century Center (100 N. Greensboro St., Carrboro)

When: Sunday, April 11: 4-5:30

Who: Gene Nichol, UNC Law Professor and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity; Chase Foster, Director of NC Voters for Clean Elections

For more information email jacksanders@nc.rr.com.

***You can view a video from NC Policy Watch’s forum on the ruling at the beginning of March. Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos and national election law expert, was the featured speaker.


NC Judicial Reform a Model for the Nation

North Carolina’s judicial program continues to provide a model for money-in-politics reform efforts around the nation. Both New Mexico and Wisconsin have established programs that are based, in part, on North Carolina’s successful program. Now both West Virginia and Washington state are also following suit.

Last week the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill 67-30 that would establish a public campaign financing pilot for elections to the state’s Supreme Court. This reform victory comes in the aftermath of several recent elections in West Virginia that were plagued by massive special interest spending. The perception of integrity in the state’s judiciary was widely seen as being compromised when several judges who benefited from this special interest election spending made rulings that financially benefited these same groups. (You may remember last year’s high profile U.S. Supreme Court decision in Caperton v. Massey requiring a West Virginia Judge to recuse himself from a case involving one of his largest campaign supporters).

The state of Washington is expected to vote on a judicial public financing program of its own sometime this week. Hopefully, we’ll have good news to report soon!


Judicial Voter-Owned Elections Could See Record Participation

This election year, North Carolina could see its highest participation rate ever for the state’s public campaign financing program for judicial elections.

Eleven of twelve candidates have declared their intent to participate in the state’s Voter-Owned Elections program during the 2010 cycle. These include both candidates for state Supreme Court and nine candidates for four Court of Appeals seats. The only candidate who has not yet filed their intent is current Court of Appeals judge Ann Marie Calabria. (Note: One of the declared candidates, Court of Appeals judge Sanford Steelman, has declared his intent, but will not qualify to receive public money because he faces no opposition).

Under the program which was created in 2002, candidates must raise around $40,000 in small donations (between $10 and $500) from at least 350 registered voters, agree to strict fund-raising and spending limits, and be listed on the general election ballot (i.e. make it past the primary). In exchange, candidates receive a public grant that allows them to avoid being financially dependent on lawyers and litigation-interest groups who have vested interests in court outcomes (these groups were the primary funders of judicial races before NC’s program was created). During the 2010 cycle, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court candidates who qualify will receive $164,400 and $240,100 grants, respectively.