Hawaii project that offers public money for election campaigns has hurdles and is being watched warily, but it shows promise
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 11:03 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2010
If voters are ever to "own elections," as organizations that champion publicly funded campaigns all advocate, they're going to have to make their move quickly. The cost of getting elected keeps rocketing up.
In the midst of a midterm election season in which campaign spending from all sides is reaching astronomical levels, an experiment in providing candidates with an alternative means of political success -- other than tapping corporations, unions and other special interest groups -- is proceeding quietly on the Big Island.
There, races for the Hawaii County Council are the first to offer a more substantial stream of public financing in the hopes of making "clean elections" -- those free of private contributions beyond individual $5 pledges -- more liable to succeed.
This is the first of a series of three election cycles that a clean-elections bill authorized, selecting the Big Island council races as the test cases. The bill passed in 2008, after several years of lobbying by public-interest groups. Championing this pilot project is a nonprofit organization, Voter Owned Hawaii. Its executive director, Kory Payne, believes the initiation shows some promising signs of success, even though only eight candidates took advantage of the public funds in this round.
"People need a little time and planning to make a real run for office," Payne said. "Most people did not know about this in time. We expect to see more people run in 2012."
A total of 16 candidates filed the initial "intent to qualify" forms starting in January, but not all of them met the requirements of the program. To qualify for funding, a candidate must obtain signatures with street addresses and $5 contributions from each of 200 residents of the district; the donations must be verifiable checks or money orders, not cash. They also must agree not to solicit any other private funds.
This is harder than it sounds. Some of the early critique has been that it tends to exclude young voters, who often don't have checking accounts, and rural residents, who sometimes use only their post office boxes.
Payne acknowledges it's a hurdle, but one that's there for a reason.
"The program is designed to make it difficult to qualify for funding," he said. "The difficult part is the candidates have to be trusted by people in their district. For someone to give a $5 check or money order, there needs to be a certain amount of support for the candidate and the ideas they're talking about."
Once they qualify, a candidate gets the average amount spent in the past on successful campaigns for the office he or she is seeking. They can exceed that amount if their opponent outspends that limit, to remain competitive.
Brittany Smart -- the Hilo challenger to incumbent Guy Enriques, who also is a clean-elections candidate -- agreed that the hard part was qualifying, which took her the entire six months allotted. But the reward for that, she said, was receiving enough money to compete: Smart placed second in the primary and forced the two-way runoff. Under the law, the amount she and Enriques each received -- $37,795 in the primary and $455 in the general -- was based on averaging what the winner of the last two cycles spent and subtracting 10 percent, Smart said.
State officials have regarded the project warily. Barbara Wong, outgoing chief of the Campaign Spending Commission, has voiced concern that the program could strain the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund. This fund, set up after the 1978 Constitutional Convention, also provides partial funding to candidates in all races who meet set spending limits.
The fund balance now stands at $4.6 million, which is replenished each year by a check-off option in which each taxpayer indicates if $3 should go to the fund. The check-off raised $216,561 this year.
Payne doubts the fund will run out of money. The Big Island pilot program is capped at $350,000; only $143,000 was spent in the primary.
Reaction to the program has been mixed. Some Council members favored a resolution seeking a postponement of the pilot project, but that effort failed last year.
The third remaining Big Island candidate who is participating in clean-election funding is the Puna district incumbent, Emily Naeole-Beason, who said it doesn't provide her enough money to pay for the large community dinners she's enjoyed hosting in the past.
"I have to do with less because I voted for it, clean elections, so I'm pono," she said. "But next time I don't think I'll use it. This limitation, we cannot do much for anybody. I've been in this community for 54 years, and I've been feeding the community for almost 40."
Smart said it would make more sense for each district to get the same amount -- Naeole only got $9,826 in the primary and $6,619 in the general.
But overall, Smart believes the program helped her build a campaign strongly rooted in community issues because it was community funded.
"It's made it a level playing field," she said. "Our community bought our campaign, so it's all about what the community wants."
It may take a while for other politicians to feel as persuaded. Last week -- in the wake of national news stories about enormous donations pouring in from political organizations funded by corporations and other interest groups -- Voter Owned Hawaii issued a call to candidates to sign a pledge of support for the clean-election financing option. So far, few have done so.
Payne is in for the long haul to bring more aboard.
"For us the bottom line is for any new law that helps change the corruption and the pay-to-play system, there's going to be bumps in the road," he said. "We're going to work to make sure it gets smoothed out.
"At the end of the day the options are clear," he added. "Either they follow the status quo, or they go with clean elections -- and then it allows them to spend more time with the people in their district instead of dialing for dollars."
Correction: The fund for the clean-elections campaigns for Hawaii County Council is capped at $350,000. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect amount.