Campaign Finance Reform in Hawaii County
A First for the State
The State League with several other advocacy organizations (Voter Owned Hawaii, Sierra Club, Americans for Democratic Action, and others) supported legislation to permit Hawaii County to try out full public funding of qualified election campaigns. Our advocacy met with success as the Legislature passed the bill and the Governor allowed it to pass without her signature.
Why is public funding of elections so important?
The cost of running for office, even on the county level, is significant. The expense has two deleterious consequences: 1) Potential candidates who might make valuable contributions to government are deterred from competing by the high cost. Potential candidates who do not have considerable personal wealth or wealthy friends cannot afford to run for office; and 2) Candidates usually fund their expensive campaigns through large donations from businesses or organizations, many of which are interested in government decisions which their candidate will help make. This creates a danger that decisions will be made based on the need to “re-pay” their donors or maintain their commitment for future election campaigns, rather than basing decisions on the best interests of the public.
Don’t we already have public financing in Hawaii elections?
Since the 1978 Constitutional Convention we have partial public funding for state elections. But the amount of funding available is not sufficient to level the playing field or encourage individuals without personal wealth or wealthy friends to run for office. The partial public funding system also allows a candidate who gets public funding to continue to collect and use private financing in addition to the public funds received. As Barack Obama’s decision not to accept public financing for his presidential campaign shows, public financing must reach an acceptable level for candidates to use it. Full public financing such as the Big Island’s will go far to encourage diversity of candidates and decisions based on the public interest.
How will the Big Island campaign finance system work?
A candidate for County office who wants to use the public financing option needs to collect 200 signatures with $5 donations. The signatures must come from registered voters who live within the district which the candidate wants to represent. Once the signatures are validated, the candidate will receive 90 percent of the average amount spent by winners in the previous two council races in that district. The candidate is restricted from using private money.
Where will the money come from?
From the money taxpayers voluntarily contribute when they check a box on their tax forms. There is currently ample money in that fund for the 3-year Big Island trial as well as to support the Campaign Spending Commission.
I’ve read that a recent Supreme Court decision threatens this process. What are the facts?
The Supreme Court in Davis v Federal Election Commission ruled that if a wealthy individual is running against a publicly funded candidate, the state cannot prevent the wealthy individual from spending as much of his/her own money as s/he wants on the campaign, regardless of the resulting imbalance between the candidates. This decision does not make any statement about the legality of publicly funding systems such as the one Hawaii County will be using. The Hawaii legislation does not include any language restricting spending by a non-publicly funded candidate.
What are the next steps? What can I do?
Advocacy organizations will be educating Big Island voters and potential candidates about how the new system works, and its potential advantages. If you live on Hawaii Island and would like to help, contact Voter Owned Hawaii via their website. Residents of other islands can contribute money to support the education efforts.