Buying elections

At tomorrow’s Town Council meeting, the public ostensibly will have a chance to give the council feedback on taxpayer-financed political campaigns, also known as the Voter Owned Elections program. It’s no secret that I think VOE is a poor use of taxpayers’ money. But it looks like it’s here to stay. The proposed amendment before council tomorrow night is only to raise the spending limits and contributions, not to decide whether the program stays or goes.

That said, if the program is to remain true to its charter, it should be limited only to candidates not currently in office.

VOE was started as a way to open up the council races to a broader range of candidates, people who may not have the thousands of dollars it takes to run a successful campaign. The idea was that with taxpayer funding for the campaigns, the composition of the council would more accurately reflect the populace and get a diverse mix of perspectives.

Extending funding to incumbents doesn’t meet that end. Incumbents have name recognition, and that goes much farther than any number of campaign signs stuck along the side of the road.
Researchers in a branch of psychology that studies how people make decisions found that when people aren’t sure of the “right” answer, they tend to choose the answer that is most familiar to them. And that holds true, even when the reason the answer is familiar to them is because they have a negative association with it.

So, voters who go to the polls to vote for one particular candidate and decide, while they’re there, to color in the lines to vote for candidates running for some other offices they don’t know much about may end up voting for candidates whose name they recognize, even if those candidates have supported causes not in the voter’s best interests.

We would like to think that people don’t go to the polls unless they’ve thoroughly researched each candidate and can make an informed choice. But I’m not so naïve as to believe that’s true for every voter.

Incumbents have the advantage of name recognition; they don’t need to spend as much on getting re-elected as a newcomer does to getting in office the first time. If my taxes have to go toward financing someone’s political campaign, at least let it be to support the lofty goals that the VOE espoused at its inception.
– Nancy Oates

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10 Comments

  1. Steve Brown

     /  October 26, 2010

    Well put, Nancy, and I agree with you 100%. I cannot believe the voters of Chapel Hill fell for this trick.

    What would be the ultimate in pay-back is if those who “took advantage” of voter “owned” elections last time were beaten by new folks to took advantage of it in the next election.

  2. Terri Buckner

     /  October 26, 2010

    Great idea Nancy. I’d go one step further and make public money available only to those whose annual income falls below the median income level for the community. In other words, you would have to qualify for housing through the Community Home Trust in order to qualify for VOE money.

  3. Duncan O'Malley

     /  October 26, 2010

    I think Terri’s suggestion is perfect; not only does it encourage lower income candidates to run, but it keeps wealthier candidates from taking advantage of the tax payer.

  4. Steve brown

     /  October 26, 2010

    Like was done in the last election, Duncan.

  5. Mark Marcoplos

     /  October 26, 2010

    These suggestions don’t address one of the major arguments for publicly-financed elections which is that the citizens benefit when special interest money is kept out of the elections. It doesn’t matter how much money a candidate might personally have if a big special interest donor buys them off.

    And now, with the radical ruling in the Citizens United case, big money is flowing faster than ever in the form of bribes, sorry – campaign contributions, to candidates at all levels.

  6. Terri Buckner

     /  October 26, 2010

    The current system doesn’t do anything to eliminate special interest money from being used in local elections. With the last election we saw one candidate using his own wealth to finance his campaign, and we saw another, who was using public money, benefitting from an anonymous PAC. Let’s not confuse national laws/rules with the local situation.

  7. matt czajkowski

     /  October 28, 2010

    Terri, Who was the candidate who”used his own wealth to finance his campaign” … in the last election. It wasn’t me. Every penny of my campaign was financed by donations from over 200 individuals in the last election.

  8. Mark Marcoplos

     /  October 28, 2010

    The public financing system should be required for all candidates.

  9. Maybe Terri was referring to me Matt, I did end up loaning my campaign $1172 (chalk that up to my extreme reluctance in asking folks for money).

    As I mentioned again last evening, while I was an early and vocal supporter of making changes to open up the field of candidates both in Chapel Hill and the County, I thought the current implementation of the VOE program didn’t serve the purposes for which it was formed. In other words, good intent – poor execution.

    Look at the slate of candidates in 2009. Were they qualitatively different than in years past?

    There are some fairly significant structural impediments to using Chapel Hill’s VOE program: reporting requirements and process (a problem Ed alluded to), requiring each Chapel Hill qualifying contribution be made with checks (some folks don’t have checking accounts), requiring either voter registration number or birth dates of folks making qualifying contributions, the relatively short time candidates have to get qualifying contributions (ask Penny – contrast her experience with Mark K. – a well known incumbent), buggy filing software that only runs on Windows 2000 which didn’t work correctly with VOE, the hassle and confusion of not dealing with our local BOE, among other logistical problems.

    If you had your own campaign manager, your own treasurer and enough time to beat the bushes for qualifying contributions (or an existing organization to do that legwork) you could pull it off. Otherwise, the program doesn’t work effectively to unleash the range of candidates we had hoped for.

    As far as reforming the program, it doesn’t appear that there is any true concern by the current Council to do so. If there was presumably the Council would have asked staff or taken on the task themselves to review these issues with the slate of candidates who ran in 2009.

    No one – from the Town, from the State BOE, from organizations like Democracy Now – has ever contacted me and asked why I chose not to pursue VOE, what impediments I saw with the program (I do have some perspective having run 3 times now for local office), what it would take for me to use VOE if I chose to run again.

    That lack of curiosity pretty much says it all. Our VOE program is a feel good exercise – and that is a true shame.

    I’m glad Matt brought up the County-wide problem. Why no competition at that level? When the County sold districting as a tool of democracy, I fought to get a better system. I lobbied for non-partisan Commissioner races to open up the field of candidates and suggested using a type of cumulative voting system that would allow folks to build strong coalitions along policy – not geographic – lines. The districting debate was rather disingenuous, and, as Matt noted last night, as far as encouraging a vibrant process, we have essentially created protected incumbencies.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  October 30, 2010

    Obviously Chapel Hill is not the best community in NC to pilot VOE, but it’s the community the state legislature approved. So it’s up to us to make the system we have the best it can be so that we serve as a model for how VOE can work. After I posted something on OP about how it didn’t live up to the expectation that it would bring greater diversity to the candidate pool after the first election cycle, someone from Democracy NC contacted me to say that we needed to give it at least 3 election cycles before we could make any determination of effectiveness. One more cycle to go. I personally will be very disappointed if we don’t see more socioeconomically diverse candidates choose to run and use the system next year. I will be equally disappointed if we see incumbents use it.

    Since it was approved as a pilot (authorization expires July 1, 2012), does anyone know what criteria will be used to determine whether it should be re-authorized?

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