10 Years Ago, Connecticut Got Big Money Out of Its Elections. Now Democrats Are Gutting the Program.

The landmark public financing system is under threat.

Adam Eichen

Protesters wait to be arrested during a Democracy Spring demonstration in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2016, calling for democracy reform. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Most Amer­i­cans rec­og­nize that our democ­ra­cy is under assault by big mon­ey. Accord­ing to a 2015 NYT/CBS poll, a full 84 per­cent of Amer­i­cans believe mon­ey has too much influ­ence in our elec­tions, and 85 per­cent want fun­da­men­tal changes to our cam­paign financ­ing sys­tem. Last year, 10 bal­lot ini­tia­tives to enact democ­ra­cy reform passed across the coun­try, from lib­er­al cities such as Berke­ley and San Fran­cis­co to the deep red state of South Dakota.

Why would Democrats so readily put public financing on the chopping block?

These ini­tia­tives ranged from cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion lim­its to lob­by­ing restric­tions to arguably the most impor­tant method of clean­ing up our elec­tions: pub­lic financ­ing. This upswell is encour­ag­ing, but it is only the start. Those work­ing to clean up the sys­tem would do well to look toward the few states where cit­i­zens have already passed ground­break­ing and even fur­ther-reach­ing leg­is­la­tion to reduce the role of big, pri­vate mon­ey in state elec­tions. Among the top of the list is Con­necti­cut, a state that, with the intro­duc­tion of the Cit­i­zens’ Elec­tion Pro­gram (CEP) in 2005, seri­ous­ly curbed the influ­ence of cor­po­ra­tions and the rich on state elections.

Yet, this bea­con of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy could soon dim, as the state leg­is­la­ture is on the verge of gut­ting the law that gave the state its demo­c­ra­t­ic promise.

Giv­ing the rich the boot

In 2005, after a major cor­rup­tion scan­dal involv­ing then-Repub­li­can gov­er­nor John Row­land rocked the state, Con­necti­cut over­hauled its elec­tions process with the CEP. Based on sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives in Maine and Ari­zona, this pro­gram pro­vides full pub­lic financ­ing for eli­gi­ble can­di­dates seek­ing a state polit­i­cal office. These grants, unlike par­tial pub­lic financ­ing, cov­er all elec­tion-relat­ed costs. Can­di­dates qual­i­fy for CEP by col­lect­ing a spe­cif­ic num­ber of $5 to $100 dona­tions from cit­i­zens in their dis­trict or, if they are seek­ing statewide office, from any­one in Con­necti­cut. These dona­tions must be from indi­vid­u­als only, not cor­po­ra­tions or PACs. (The CT Mir­ror explains the qual­i­fi­ca­tion process and how much mon­ey is allo­cat­ed to each office in more detail here).

The CEP is fund­ed not by tax­es but by the sale of aban­doned prop­er­ty in Con­necti­cut. In total the pro­gram is allo­cat­ed an aver­age of $10 – 11 mil­lion a year, which is enough to cov­er all races in the state over a four-year cycle. Using CEP funds is vol­un­tary, but almost 90 per­cent of cur­rent Con­necti­cut state leg­is­la­tors and 100 per­cent of cur­rent state offi­cers (gov­er­nor, lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, sec­re­tary of the state, trea­sur­er, comp­trol­ler and attor­ney gen­er­al) chose CEP fund­ing for their elec­tion cam­paigns, accord­ing to an analy­sis by the League of Women Vot­ers of Con­necti­cut.

The pas­sage of the Clean Elec­tions pro­gram in Con­necti­cut was an extra­or­di­nary achieve­ment,” explains Nick Nyhart, who was involved in the orig­i­nal draft­ing of CEP and is now pres­i­dent and CEO of the good gov­ern­ment group Every Voice Cen­ter (for­mer­ly known as Pub­lic Cam­paign). Thanks to unre­lent­ing grass­roots pres­sure, the state’s polit­i­cal lead­ers came togeth­er across par­ti­san lines to enact sweep­ing reform. It was the first time in any state that incum­bent law­mak­ers had vot­ed to elim­i­nate big pri­vate dona­tions for their own seats, replac­ing that mon­ey with pub­lic funds and small dona­tions from their constituents.”

The ben­e­fits of pub­lic financ­ing are count­less. As Con­necti­cut state sen­a­tor Gary Win­field puts it, pub­lic financ­ing not only lev­eled the play­ing field, it com­plete­ly upend­ed the play­ing field.” More­over, he recent­ly explained, CEP opens up pol­i­tics to peo­ple who don’t have access.” The Amer­i­can Prospect reports that CEP increased com­pe­ti­tion for leg­isla­tive seats. In both 2000 and 2004, at least one of the major par­ties failed to field a can­di­date in near­ly 40 per­cent of Connecticut’s leg­isla­tive races. By 2010, that per­cent­age had fall­en to 29.”

State Rep. Matthew Less­er ran for office in 2008, the year the CEP was launched, and was among the first can­di­dates to use the pub­lic financ­ing option. I took on an incum­bent, and at the age of 25, nobody thought I had a chance,” he says. But the Cit­i­zens’ Elec­tion Pro­gram made that and many oth­er improb­a­ble wins pos­si­ble. I under­stand that’s threat­en­ing to incum­bents and spe­cial inter­ests, but it’s impor­tant and we need to pro­tect it.”

Pub­lic financ­ing also allows can­di­dates to spend more time talk­ing to vot­ers. Barnard Col­lege pro­fes­sor Michael Miller, author of Sub­si­diz­ing Democ­ra­cy: How Pub­lic Fund­ing Changes Elec­tions and How It Can Work in the Future, esti­mates that full pub­lic financ­ing leads to thou­sands more inter­ac­tions per elec­tion cycle between pub­licly financed can­di­dates and vot­ers. Accord­ing to his analy­sis, par­tic­i­pa­tion in such pro­grams reduces the pro­por­tion of time spent on fundrais­ing from 11 per­cent to 2 per­cent. Can­di­dates who were freed from fundrais­ing spent their time with voters.

Giv­en the Supreme Court deci­sions like Cit­i­zens Unit­ed, big mon­ey can still play a large role in elec­tions through inde­pen­dent expen­di­tures (spend­ing not coor­di­nat­ed with a cam­paign), espe­cial­ly in the guber­na­to­r­i­al race. But over­all the state has suc­ceed­ed in reduc­ing the cor­rup­tion — and the appear­ance there­of — that plagued the state before CEP.

Death by a thou­sand cuts

Over the years, how­ev­er, leg­is­la­tors have chipped away at the program’s fund­ing. As Miller explained to In These Times: One of the most com­mon tac­tics for oppo­nents of cam­paign finance laws is to incre­men­tal­ly weak­en the relat­ed laws and cre­ate loop­holes. It is a process of death by a thou­sand cuts.’” In total, from 2009 to 2012, the leg­is­la­ture cut the program’s fund­ing by 40 per­cent. Nev­er­the­less, at $10-$11 mil­lion a cycle, the pro­gram kept the bare min­i­mum need­ed to survive.

But in the last two years, CEP’s very exis­tence has come under threat with bipar­ti­san vigor.

In fall 2015, fac­ing bud­get short­fall, the state Democ­rats advo­cat­ed for the sus­pen­sion of CEP to save” mon­ey. But cit­i­zens across the state respond­ed with out­rage, flood­ing their rep­re­sen­ta­tives with angry calls. The board of the State Elec­tions Enforce­ment Com­mis­sion (SEEC), the five-mem­ber, bipar­ti­san cit­i­zens’ com­mit­tee in charge of admin­is­ter­ing CEP, made the extra­or­di­nary move of approv­ing a res­o­lu­tion oppos­ing and con­demn­ing the plan.

[The] Com­mis­sion unan­i­mous­ly oppos­es the Democ­rats’ pro­posed bud­get that would sus­pend the suc­cess­ful and nation­al­ly rec­og­nized Cit­i­zens’ Elec­tion Pro­gram for the 2016 elec­tion cycle,” wrote the Com­mis­sion in a press release. Such a sus­pen­sion would set the CEF on course for per­ma­nent under­fund­ing and would return our can­di­dates for elect­ed office back on the path to the reliance on spe­cial inter­est mon­ey for their cam­paigns and reverse a decade of progress.”

The anti-CEP pro­pos­al also received vig­or­ous push­back from the bipar­ti­san Young Leg­is­la­tors Cau­cus, says Elona Vais­nys, who heads the League of Women Vot­ers of Connecticut’s CEProud, a project to increase pub­lic aware­ness about CEP. All Young Leg­is­la­tors Cau­cus mem­bers were CEP recip­i­ents.

With­in a few days, the Democ­rats rescind­ed their plan.

The CEP appeared safe. Yet, few­er than two years lat­er, the Repub­li­can minor­i­ty has dropped CEP from its 2017 bud­get alto­geth­er, and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty wants to cut anoth­er $5 mil­lion from the pro­gram for each of the next two allo­ca­tion cycles (approx­i­mate­ly a 25 per­cent cut over four years).

Accord­ing to the SEEC, these cuts would slice at the heart of the pro­gram. A $10 mil­lion cut over two years would dras­ti­cal­ly impact our abil­i­ty to award CEP grants in 2018 and beyond,” says Michael Bran­di, exec­u­tive direc­tor and gen­er­al coun­sel of SEEC. It’s pret­ty sim­ple: With­out this mon­ey going for­ward, we esti­mate we will be about $10 mil­lion short of what’s need­ed to oper­ate the clean elec­tions program.”

Why would Democ­rats so read­i­ly put pub­lic financ­ing on the chop­ping block?

One rea­son might be that the pro­gram pro­vides the same amount of fund­ing for incum­bents and chal­lengers, which decreas­es the advan­tage of incum­bents. Stud­ies have shown that while full pub­lic financ­ing does not always dimin­ish the like­li­hood of incum­bents win­ning, it trans­lates to a small­er mar­gin of vic­to­ry. Tighter elec­tions can keep incum­bents more account­able to their con­stituents, for they real­ize reelec­tion is not always guar­an­teed and that any­one — regard­less of wealth — could mount a viable chal­lenge. The num­ber of pri­ma­ry chal­lengers also tends to increase, like­ly mak­ing incum­bents even uneasi­er. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, there­fore, incum­bents in the few states with pub­lic financ­ing are often the most will­ing to express oppo­si­tion to clean elec­tions pro­grams. In fact, Miller says his sur­vey found that many politi­cians often run with pub­lic funds in their first elec­tion, and then turn to pri­vate fund­ing sources in sub­se­quent elections.

For years, cor­po­rate-backed leg­is­la­tors and spe­cial inter­ests in Con­necti­cut have exploit­ed our bud­get short­falls with attempts to gut clean elec­tions under the false pre­tense that our state can­not afford the pro­gram,” says Lind­say Far­rell, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the CT Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty. What is uncon­scionable is that leg­is­la­tors who have used the pro­gram to run for office would con­sid­er under­min­ing the pro­gram for future candidates.”

Connecticut’s bud­get short­fall is grim, indeed. The state is pro­ject­ed to have a $5 bil­lion-plus deficit for the next two years. That said, cut­ting $5 mil­lion from the CEP or elim­i­nat­ing it alto­geth­er would only save a neg­li­gi­ble amount of dol­lars (accord­ing to the League of Women Vot­ers of Con­necti­cut, CEP rep­re­sents 0.0001 per­cent of the state bud­get) while also deal­ing a major blow to fair elec­tions in the state. And, in light of the ris­ing cit­i­zen anger toward big mon­ey in pol­i­tics, weak­en­ing CEP would be a bad polit­i­cal decision.

More­over, cut­ting CEP will cost the state mon­ey, not save it,” Miles Rapoport, for­mer Con­necti­cut sec­re­tary of the state, and cur­rent senior prac­tice fel­low in Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, tells In These Times. In addi­tion to all its advan­tages for democ­ra­cy, I have zero doubt that the pro­gram has saved Con­necti­cut hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, by avoid­ing the tax breaks, reg­u­la­to­ry tweaks, and hid­den sub­si­dies that lob­by­ists rou­tine­ly got through in the days when leg­is­la­tors depend­ed on them for cam­paign fund­ing. This makes no sense even in bud­get terms.”

In 2012, Karen Hobert Fly­nn, then vice pres­i­dent of state oper­a­tions for Com­mon Cause—now the organization’s pres­i­dent — gave a state­ment that rings even more true today. I know these are dif­fi­cult times,” she said, but you can’t put a price on clean gov­ern­ment. What’s real­ly set Con­necti­cut apart so far is lead­er­ship that has been will­ing to make the hard choic­es need­ed to pre­serve clean elec­tions. If you lose that, you begin the slip­pery slide back to Cor­rup­ti­cut.’”

It’s now up to Con­necti­cut res­i­dents to fight for their gem of an elec­tions program.

Adam Eichen is Cam­paigns Manger at Equal Cit­i­zens and co-author of Dar­ing Democ­ra­cy: Ignit­ing Pow­er, Mean­ing, and Con­nec­tion for the Amer­i­ca We Want (Bea­con Press, 2017) with Frances Moore Lap­pé. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @adameichen.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue