The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a slap but not a fatal blow to states and local governments experimenting with public-financed campaign options aimed at opening the elections process to more than those in a position to tap large-scale donors.
Hawaii is among the jurisdictions affected by this week’s decision. But in Monday’s 5-4 ruling on the McComish v. Bennett case, only part of Hawaii’s "clean elections" pilot project, now under way in Hawaii County Council races, was struck down. State lawmakers should take this as an imperative to pass an amendment in the coming session so that the project can proceed uninterrupted into its second election cycle next year.
First, a note of clarification: Hawaii Island candidates who opt into the clean-elections system don’t get money from the state general fund. The Hawaii Election Campaign Fund is replenished essentially by donations taxpayers make by checking a box on their state tax return. Other sources are small donations the candidate must garner themselves from registered voters in their district. To qualify for even a base amount of funds, a candidate needs a total of $200 in $5 donations from such voters, a device aimed at promoting a candidate’s engagement with the electorate.
What’s at issue is the supplemental funding source for publicly funded candidates who want to keep pace with a competitor with access to private money. The Arizona statute under review by the court, like Hawaii’s, included a matching fund that is triggered by the competitor’s spending. The justices struck that down, finding that the competitors might feel constrained, knowing that their spending pipes an equal amount of money from the public campaign fund into their rivals’ coffers. This, the majority ruled, was a violation of their right to free, political speech.
We join other critics of this ruling by pointing out that voter-owned elections don’t curb anyone’s political speech but enable more of it, from people who otherwise have no access to well-monied donors and interest groups. Justice Elena Kagan, writing the dissenting opinion, rightly observed that the challengers merely wanted to have "the field to themselves."
That said, there is a route toward salvaging the essence of the law by removing a competitor’s spending as a trigger for supplemental funds. In a proposal favored by the nonprofit advocacy group Voter Owned Hawaii, the candidate needing more campaign funds could start by soliciting more small donations of no more than $20 each from registered voters in their district. These contributions would be compounded through a four-to-one match from the campaign fund. The "equalizing fund" that was triggered by another candidate’s spending would be repealed.
This revision was submitted to the Legislature last session in House Bill 1575, which never got past Square One. It should be resurrected next session and passed.
Elsewhere in the country, efforts to create more robust public campaign finance systems have been rewarded with greater participation by political newcomers. This option needs time to develop so that the right balance can be struck: The bar should raised high enough for public funds so that candidates need to invest some effort to get them, without it being too onerous.
Hawaii’s pilot project must be amended to pass judicial muster so it gets the full three-election test that lawmakers promised. If the experiment succeeds, the result — an election system reachable by more grassroots candidates — will be worth the investment.