Before this year, our mechanism for public campaign financing was woefully limited and seemingly designed to discourage potential candidates. The excessive and punitive rules resulted in the only person ever to gain public financing, Dean Corren, facing an overzealous prosecution by Attorney General Bill Sorrell, our deeply tainted Guardian of Electoral Purity.
But that’s the good news.
The bad news is, the whole system has suddenly become a cruel joke. It’s so bad that unless the Legislature can bring itself to enact a simpler, more generous process, I’d just as soon they kill the thing. In its current state, it’s an insult to the very ideals it purports to uphold.
What’s different this year? As I wrote in my previous post on the Progressive Party, public financing has been rendered irrelevant by the unprecedentedly early start to the 2016 campaign (for governor and lieutenant governor, anyway) and the likelihood of record-breaking campaign spending.
I realize that 2016 may prove to be an outlier in terms of length and expense because the top two offices are open, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on future campaigns getting shorter and cheaper. It tends not to work that way. Which means the current start date and money caps are unworkable.
The system was bad enough already. Its Byzantine rules force potential candidates to effectively sprint through a minefield.
Here’s what they have to do. First, they can’t conduct any campaign activities or even hint at a candidacy until February 15 of election year. Then, once they’ve launched, they have a mere 90 days to gather hundreds and hundreds of small individual donations. Gubernatorial candidates must get at least 1,500 Vermonters to donate no more than $50 apiece; Lite-Gov hopefuls must get at least 750 small donations. And your donor list has to have a broad geographic spread; you can’t rely on your home turf.
Let’s say you manage to do all of that. Then you face a hard cap on campaign spending, plus virtual bans on any outside support. Which means that, in Corren’s case, the Democrats and Progressives could do little on his behalf even though he occupied both parties’ tickets.
If I were of a cynical mindset (heh), I’d speculate that our esteemed lawmakers deliberately crafted a system that was as difficult and unrewarding as possible, while paying lip service to the idea of publicly-funded campaigns.
But leaving aside the questionable motivations of past legislatures, it’s clear that the current system is a wreck. There’s been talk of a modest rework to prevent future entanglements like Corren’s, but I see little point. This system doesn’t need a patch; it needs a complete reinvention. Otherwise, we should just stop pretending we have a system, because we really don’t.
What should a real public financing system look like? Well, I’m no expert on campaign law, so I’m open to correction; but here’s what I think.
— It should include legislative offices as well as the statewide ones. Publicly financed candidates would have a better shot at success on a more local level. And the legislature is at a much earlier point in the political cost curve than the statewide offices: most campaigns are downright affordable. Public financing could have a real impact.
— The mandated starting date of February 15 needs to be moved back, at least for the statewide offices. I’d suggest exactly one year before Election Day, but I’m not dogmatic about that.
— The requirements for collecting donations should be relaxed somehow. For statewide offices, I’d retain the current totals but double the 90-day period for gathering funds. Make it six months. Potential candidates wouldn’t have to conduct an insane spring, but would still need to prove their appeal. (The fundraising period and the donor totals would be smaller for legislative candidates.)
— The rules on outside assistance need some serious easing. Direct financial support should be barred; but if a candidate gains a party’s nomination, said party should be able to offer the kinds of assistance commonly given to candidates on its ticket.
Of course, if we open up the system, more candidates will qualify and it’ll cost more money. And there’s the question: are we serious about public financing?
If we are, then we should consider the funds a useful investment in democracy. If we aren’t, then we should stop pretending.