Record Campaign Shows Need For Reform

CourierPostOnline — Thursday, December 6, 2007


Clean elections program should be statewide to end influence of political bosses backed by big contributors.

If lawmakers need proof that clean elections should be held in every district, they ought to consider the numbers from the Nov. 6 elections.

Statewide turnout was a dismal 32 percent. But Democratic and Republican candidates broke state fundraising records, pulling in $82.45 million for the general election and the primary. They spent $68.8 million of that money.

This beat the former record amount of campaign cash raised in 2003, the last time all 120 seats were in play. Four years ago, legislative candidates raised $76 million and spent nearly $57 million.

With this much money backing candidates, it should suggest deep interest in the elections. Yet, most eligible New Jersey voters didn't bother to cast a ballot, and probably few contributed a dime to any of the candidates.

Most of those record sums came from the same special-interest groups that continue to help decide, with their money, who will speak for New Jerseyans and for them.

If asked, most legislators insist they are not influenced by big-money contributors. Yet, big money often decides if they can even run for office.

New Jersey's campaign rules allow county political parties and legislative leaders to accept money from big donors, including those who benefit from government business. These county bosses and legislative leaders can also funnel money around the state to help or hurt candidates. It is nearly impossible for an independent candidate without major-party backing to win election. Clearly, donors put their money behind candidates who can do the most to promote or protect their interests.

With major-party candidates chosen at party meetings well before a primary, bored voters have too little to do.

Joseph R. Marbach, a Seton Hall University professor of political science, recently attributed low voter turnout in the last election to a lack of competitive races and lack of information about the candidates. Candidates don't need to spend that much time talking to their constituents when they can sit back and accept checks from party bosses. Only four of the state's 40 districts had competitive legislative races.

This party-controlled system is eroding participatory democracy in New Jersey. Lawmakers have made half-hearted reforms that conveniently leave huge loopholes to continue business as usual. But voters shouldn't throw up their hands and sit out the elections. Rather, they should protest the lack of meaningful reforms and demand that clean election programs be launched in every district. The program should also be changed to allow more money to go to independent candidates.

Clean elections require candidates to raise money in small denominations from hundreds of people. Big donors have less clout in such elections. If done right, clean elections could eventually give average voters a reason to go to the polls because they will be more involved in picking their representatives. That's how it should be.

Copyright 2007 Courier-Post

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