Asbury Park Press

Clean Elections Merits Expansion

Asbury Park Press — Monday, January 7, 2008

With the newly reconstituted state Legislature soon to convene, it should get serious about public campaign financing that can rid the state of the corruptive influence of special-interest money. Last year's experiment with so-called "clean elections" proved they work. It's time to extend the pilot program to the entire state and make sure the primary elections and third parties are in play, too.

Clean Elections enables candidates to focus on issues rather than on fund-raising or currying favor with benefactors, who expect a return on their investment. Funding the primaries would encourage newcomers, women and members of minority groups to seek their party's nomination. Now, the choices too often are preordained by the county political party bosses, which make uncontested primary elections the rule.

The concept has a powerful proponent in Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden. He would like to add more legislative districts, cut the state's contribution per candidate, include primaries and give third-party candidates the same money Republicans and Democrats receive. Roberts also is studying extending the program to local elections. Going local would be going too far, but his other ideas all deserve support.

The experiment was tried in three districts last fall – one safely Democratic, one safely Republican and one competitive. A poll showed that public awareness and the candidates' focus on issues was greater in the publicly funded districts than the rest of the state.

The hang-up is the cost. This year, $4.1 million was spent to finance the campaigns of the 16 publicly funded candidates. That's an average of $256,250 per – a figure far too high for a $49,000 part-time job, even if the state weren't facing a $3 billion budget shortfall. Roberts and his colleagues should set a much lower figure – one that makes public financing in all legislative districts more feasible. Candidates may howl at a lower spending limit. But it would be a worthwhile exercise in getting the most for their money, which is really taxpayers' money. It would show voters how good the candidates can be at making do with less.

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