Asbury Park Press

Clean Elections Donation Thresholds Set High For Good Reason

Asbury Park Press — Saturday, September 24, 2005

If The Asbury Park Press were at all interested in making a fair critique of this year's pilot Clean Elections program for legislative races, it would assign itself some of the blame for the financing qualification problems outlined in its Sept. 24 editorial "Elections law needs overhaul."

It's unfortunate that the Press – in contrast to the coverage Clean Elections received from The Courier-Post of Cherry Hill – largely spent its editorial space deriding the pilot program instead of providing evenhanded and consistent encouragement for public participation in the program.

This is the first year Clean Elections public financing is being attempted in New Jersey. Under the program, candidates could qualify for public financing if they raised 1,000 $5 contributions and 500 $30 contributions from registered voters in their designated districts.

In other words, if each candidate had 100 supporters who could get 15 friends or neighbors to contribute these small amounts of money, that candidate would qualify for public funds.

Recognizing that the qualifying level was nonetheless challenging, acting Gov. Codey – at my request – extended the deadline by two weeks for candidates to qualify for public financing. Meanwhile, the state Election Law Enforcement Commission – also at my request – allowed candidates three weeks to solicit donations online and via debit cards. Despite these changes, candidates in the 13th District still were unable to qualify.

In a fit of Monday-morning quarterbacking, the Press criticized me as the prime sponsor of the Clean Elections law for establishing stringent qualification criteria that made program participation difficult. While I acknowledge the law's donation thresholds have proved to be extremely challenging to satisfy and should be modified, it's important to note the current standards were not created arbitrarily or in a vacuum.

The donation thresholds were reached after substantial input from the wide variety of organizations that comprise New Jersey's government reform community. These reform groups defended the threshold amounts at the committee level and recommended that a high number of small donations was needed to make the Clean Elections program meaningful and well structured.

I can't help but point out that the Press editorial page never saw fit to provide any meaningful input on the Clean Elections legislation when it was being crafted, or to raise a red flag about the donation thresholds when it was enacted. Instead, the newspaper fired its potshots when it did the least good – after the fact.

If the Press were at all interested in taking a more responsible tack on this issue, it might examine the approach taken by another Gannett newspaper, The Courier-Post. While The Courier-Post expressed misgivings with the Clean Elections program, it also spent considerable energy and space in regularly urging its readers to participate in the pilot project taking place in the 6th District. Together with the hard work of the candidates, this was a primary reason why the Democrats in the 6th District qualified with more than 1,000 donations to spare and the Republican candidates claim to have met more than 70 percent of the donation criteria.

Had the Press been as conscientious and committed in the 13th District, perhaps the candidates in that district would have succeeded in qualifying instead of failing to meet their goals.

The Press regrettably squandered a rare opportunity to help change the way elections are run in New Jersey. Instead of looking in the mirror to see if it could have dedicated more space to help Clean Elections succeed, I sense it was a whole lot easier (and cheaper) for the Press to take the lazy approach of assailing the policymakers who sincerely tried a different approach to financing legislative election campaigns.

Joseph J. Roberts Jr.


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