One of the harshest realities of modern American politics is that a candidate's fundraising prowess is often represented as an important predictor of electoral success -- more so than than his or her experience, intelligence or commitment to public service. As each new political cycle begins, party bosses, campaign strategists and newspaper reporters are more interested in potential candidates' abilities to raise significant sums of cash than their qualifications for elected office.
The demand for cash nurtures a system in which the strongest candidates are all too often the most vigorous fundraisers. In many cases these fundraising superheroes are individuals who enjoy the backing of deep-pocket special interests or develop close relationships with party leaders sitting on fat campaign war chests. In other cases these candidates are simply wealthy individuals willing to self-finance their political careers. In this climate, potential candidates with exceptional qualifications often walk away from the process without even considering the formation of an "exploratory" campaign committee.
Public campaign financing is a sound option for surmounting these hurdles. Under a public financing system, candidates meeting certain thresholds of public support could draw campaign cash from a state-operated fund. Candidates would not be required to accept such dollars, but this option would fuel qualified candidates who lack access to party bosses, special interests or personal wealth. Public campaign financing has been applied successfully in at least 25 states and new innovations are being studied around the country each year.
The case for public financing is particularly compelling in the arena of judicial elections. Special interests are increasingly using their checkbooks to buy the loyalty of Illinois judges. Reforming this system is critical due to the qualities of impartiality, independence and fairness we demand from our judicial officers. Consider the following:
Campaign spending in Illinois Supreme Court races has jumped 650 percent since 2000 and is expected to continue on this trajectory. The 2004 5th Judicial District race for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court shattered previous national fundraising records for a state high court race. Republican Lloyd Karmeier, with backing from business interests, and Democrat Gordon Maag, with backing from trial lawyers, collectively spent $9.3 million. Karmeier ultimately won what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described as an ``ugly, dispiriting, destructive, misleading, money-drenched race."
Two years later in the Fifth Appellate District, Republican incumbent Steve McGlynn and Democratic challenger Bruce Stewart collectively raised and spent $3.35 million. Again, the race was fueled by large donations from business interests and trial lawyers. Stewart ultimately won in a race that primarily featured negative attack advertising by both sides.
The growing influence of big money in judicial races is discouraging many of the most qualified potential candidates from seeking judicial office.
The legislature in North Carolina recognized these problems in 2002 and passed the Judicial Campaign Reform Act. The law provided full public financing for court of appeals and state Supreme Court candidates who agreed to operate under certain fundraising and spending limitations. The primary funding mechanisms include a voluntary contribution requested of attorneys as they pay their privilege license tax and a check-off on individual state income tax forms. Since the program's enactment, most of the state's eligible candidates have sought and successfully participated in the program. And, the Tar Heel state is considering expanding the offices for which candidates may participate in the public financing program.
ICPR supports the creation of a similar public financing system for both judicial, executive branch and state legislative candidates. Public financing is one of the issues the state's future Task Force on Campaign Finance Reform, which was called for under the contribution limits legislation Senate Bill 1466, will study.