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Last night, the Greenville City Council voted to ask the North Carolina General Assembly for the right to explore voter-owned elections at the local level. The city joins Wilmington (February) and Raleigh (January) in adopting such a measure.

Voter-owned elections are a proven method of dislodging special interest money from the political process, and empowering citizen participation in democracy. The idea is that candidates should get their campaign money from small donors in their constituency, as well as a public fund, rather than soliciting big money contributions that often come with strings attached.

In 2009, the Town of Chapel Hill became the first community east of the Mississippi to conduct a voter-owned election; the top 2 vote-getters were both voter-owned.

Currently, cities must ask the state for special permission even to consider campaign reform. But with more and more communities joining the chorus for change, the legislature has every reason to grant them reform authority in the upcoming short session.

North Carolina has quietly begun building a national reputation for campaign finance reform.

Our clean elections system where candidates get public grants to run for office — rather than soliciting contributions from big donors — is considered the best in the South. Our judicial elections are consistently held up as a model for changing “business as usual” in the courtroom.

But as more than 100 citizens reminded legislators during a public lobby day in Raleigh this week, now is no time let up.  

For one thing, three of our Council of State offices were included in a clean elections pilot last November. By all accounts, the plan fulfilled expectations. Legislators now should make the program a permanent part of our statewide elections landscape.

State lawmakers also should give North Carolina cities the option of clean elections. With local campaign costs rising at breakneck speed, many municipal leaders are interested in testing new ideas. They should have the same public finance option that the legislature gave the Town of Chapel Hill in 2007.

Our gains in campaign finance reform are tenuous, and they deserve to be solidified legislatively.