November 18, 2003

Students Push Clean Elections For Tompkins

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In December, the Cornell chapter of Democracy Matters will urge the Tompkins Country legislature to pass a resolution in support of the Clean Money Clean Elections Bill, currently under consideration in the state legislature. The bill seeks to restructure the way elections are conducted in New York state through the creation of a public financing system, which proponents say would eliminate the disproportionate political influence of wealthy campaign donors.

“Clean election reform is an issue related to every other issue someone could care about, because it’s really at the heart of how to get your opinion expressed,” said Zach Hollander ’04, campus coordinator for Democracy Matters. “It affects everyone who has an opinion.”


In a publicly financed election, candidates have the option to accept a sum of money collected from taxpayers in return for a pledge to refrain from using private contributions or personal wealth. The benefit of such a system, supporters say, is a reduction in the amount of time elected officials spend fundraising while in office, as well as reinforcing loyalty to constituents rather than large special interest groups.

Democracy Matters is currently trying to win support for the measure in the Tompkins County legislature. They admit the group will be harder to win over than the Ithaca Common Council, which has already passed a similar resolution endorsing the bill. The group has been encouraging students to send letters to the legislature and recently held a tabling event on the Ithaca Commons to publicize the issue.

Publicly funded elections have been established in Maine, Arizona and Massachusetts, with Vermont offering a public funding option to candidates in gubernatorial races. There are also public funds available to presidential candidates, funds which President Bush and Democratic rivals Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) have turned down in favor of private fund-raising efforts.

Hollander regards the presidential campaign system as an example of a flawed attempt at public financing, and one which smaller scale state systems will have to learn from.

“We’re really talking about exponential increases, and the laws on the books right now about presidential elections are being made obsolete, because they never expected the numbers to go this high,” Hollander said. “People have to opt out of those systems because you can’t win an election and adhere to those limits.”

Recent reforms, such as the McCain-Feingold ban on loosely-regulated “soft money” contributions, don’t go far enough in rooting out the problem, according to Hollander.

“Soft money is 30 percent of the money in the system. It’s one thing to get rid of that 30 percent, but in exchange for that … they doubled the limit on [the other 70 percent], so they effectively doubled the amount of money that made up the majority of the system,” Hollander said. “There’s too much money there.”

Yet pushing more dramatic reforms may prove to be challenging, especially in New York State, according to former state assemblyman Prof. Marty Luster, government. While representatives may seem cautiously supportive of such legislation, that support does not often translate into concrete results.

“It’s difficult in New York. It is a very old-fashioned, entrenched political system, and it is hard to change,” Luster said. “I know in assembly we have passed clean finance reform bills for fifteen years now. The senate has passed their own versions, the governor says he’s in favor of [it], but we never seem to get together. There is no real political will to get it done.”

Publicly financed election reform is not without its opponents, both in the state legislature and on campus.

“The notion itself is undemocratic. Why should my taxpayer money be used to support a Democrat, assuming I am a Republican?” said Joseph Pylman ’04, editor-in-chief of the Cornell Review. “Taxpayer money should be used for public goods that society as a whole benefits from, not just a few interest groups.”

Opponents say that restricting access to certain types of funds is a violation of the first amendment right to free speech, as the restrictions may limit the ability of a candidate to broadcast his or her message.

“When you attempt to regulate money in politics, you are more than incidentally abridging first amendment rights, you are seriously hindering the ability to communicate with many people on the national level,” Pylman said.

The future of publicly funded elections in New York is still up in the air, according to Luster. He says that while public backing for such reforms may be growing, supporters still have work ahead of them in convincing the state legislature to make their plans a reality.

“Unless they can get to the legislative leadership and talk in the language that they understand, the language … of votes, it’s not going to go anywhere,” Luster said. “They need to convince the leadership that their political viability … is at stake. They need a mass movement.”

Archived article by Jeff Sickelco