Asbury Park Press

Cut The Red Tape For Clean Elections

Asbury Park Press — Sunday, August 21, 2005

The candidates in the 13th Legislative District participating in the Fair and Clean Elections pilot project know they are trailblazers in a noble experiment to eliminate the influence of big donors in election campaigns. But their path to earning public financing is riddled with paperwork that must be tweaked before the program is extended to other races statewide.

Advocates want to make sure candidates have broad support, so each one must raise $20,000 from 1,500 contributors by Sept. 7. The candidates are knocking on doors, setting up storefront tables and attending

community events to gather the required $5,000 in $5 checks from 1,000 people and $15,000 in $30 checks from 500 people. And these donors all have to be registered voters in the nine-town district.

Those requirements alone involve lots of paper. And they apply to each candidate. For couples, no $10 or $60 checks are allowed unless the donors share a checking account. Even then, both must sign and specify the name of the candidate. Then there's the qualifying contribution receipt each donor must fill out for each donation. That includes the donor's occupation and employer's name and address, information hardly relevant to campaign finance when small amounts are involved.

All this red tape has left the candidates – and the donors, no doubt – spinning. There's got to be an easier way to show support without all this paperwork. The New Jersey Citizens' Clean Elections Commission, which is monitoring the project, has to weigh carefully the experience of the candidates in the 13th and 6th districts participating in the experiment. It has to balance the goal of gathering and certifying so many small donations with the bureaucracy it has produced so it doesn't discourage candidates and donors. What's so magical about 1,500 contributions totaling $20,000? Whatever its decision, the checks should be sufficient proof of the donor's commitment without a detailed receipt.

The donations don't belong to the candidates, anyway. They go to the Clean Elections Fund. If the state Election Law Enforcement Commission determines that the candidates have met the threshold, they qualify for the state funds. That comes to $59,175 each for the Republican and Democratic candidates, but only half that for the Green Party candidates. If the threshold for public funding is the same for all six candidates, then the Greens should get the same amount. What better way to provide a level playing field for third-party campaigns?

Some additional good has come from this experiment. It has forced the candidates to not only become press-the-flesh fund-raisers but also vocal advocates of clean elections. They have to explain how campaigns funded by donors whose contributions too often are rewarded with government contracts lead to elected officials who are beholden to their benefactors, not the public. That is a message worth spreading.

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