The Soap Box
By Timothy Bristol
American political campaigns are some of the longest most expensive political campaigns in the world. The seemingly unending amount of money that flows through the American political system is equally problematic and necessary as candidates find themselves in a constant need to have a funding advantage over each other.
This need escalates each year as campaigns become increasingly more expensive with each election cycle. Not only is this prevalent on the national level but also on a state level where candidates can find themselves priced out of a race for their state legislature or governor. In Connecticut, we have a program known as the Citizens Election Program or CEP which is a public financing program for our state elections.
Public financing is a form of campaign financing where a campaign or campaign committee is in part or fully funded by a government program for a given election. These programs are designed to aid campaigns that otherwise struggle to find adequate campaign funds or deter the use of corporate or large donor money by campaigns. These programs are considered to be “full funding” or “Block Grant” programs.
The basic idea behind them is that qualified candidates get a lump sum of money in either one or two payments and once they receive that money, they are not allowed to raise other funds or accept any other money. Full-funding campaigns are supposed to eliminate the influence of private contributions and limit the amount of money that is spent on political campaigns. This is supposed to remove the time sink that is fundraising and allow candidates to focus more on the campaign and engage with their constituents.
The program had set certain goals in reforming campaign finance in statewide races.
1. First allowing candidates to compete without reliance on special money interest.
2. Second allowing candidates the ability to make decisions free of interests or appearing to be influenced by special interests.
3. Third restoring public confidence in electoral and legislative processes.
4. Fourth Increasing citizen participation.
5. Finally, Useful and timely disclosure of campaign finances.
The Citizens Election program is funded “with proceeds from the sale of abandoned property and unclaimed bottle deposits.” This means that the program is not directly funded by the state’s budget and the funds going into the program can’t be reduced because legislators are looking to save some money. The unclaimed bottle deposits alone have given the program $240 million dollars in the last 10 years.
Connecticut’s CEP program, while not directly funded by the state budget, has been raided by the state legislature when budget gaps needed to be filled. In a report from 2012, the State Elections Enforcement Commission urged the Governor and General assembly to fully fund the program and ensure that grants will be available to candidates.
The study noted that $58.5 million dollars had been taken from the program to mitigate the state’s budget deficit problems over the years and that the Citizens Election Fund was in danger of not having sufficient funds to operate in the 2014 statewide elections. While the state does not give money directly to the Citizens Election Fund, it is apparent that it can take funds from the program to fix the budget.
The CEP also has had some administrative issues when it comes to funding as well. The State Elections Enforcement Commission or SEEC is the administrative body in charge of the enforcement of CEP and got a guaranteed $2.3 million dollars every election cycle to cover the administrative cost of running the program when the law was originally passed. That provision was repealed in 2009 and the repeal took effect in 2011.
Since then, SEEC has faced budget cuts and staff reductions. This makes administering the more than 200 possible grants promptly much more difficult. Short Staffing at SEEC also makes it very difficult for them to arbitrate the hundreds of complaints they receive every year. This creates a problem of transparency and possible abuse of the system.
One of the biggest complaints of the system in recent years has been the use of consultants and abuse of the campaign funds when it comes to candidates who run unopposed. The system needs reform to prevent abuse and waste. While the law requires campaigns to send back unused funds at the end of the campaign cycle, most campaigns do everything they can to spend every penny they have.
The abuse comes in when campaigns and candidates spend campaign funds to hire friends and family as “consultants”, or one consultant working from many campaigns in possible forms of collusion between campaigns that would violate the laws governing the system. The program needs reform to help keep some of these bad practices out but that does not mean the CEP is a failure by any means.
A big flaw in the system is wealthy candidates like Ned Lamont or Bob Stefanowski, neither used the CEP in the last two gubernatorial races. They spend far more money than the program provided for, but due to the program having to be voluntary, there isn’t a solution to this problem. There are provisions for candidates who oppose self-funded candidates to receive additional funds if they are massively outspent but in the end, it may not be enough to compete with millionaires.
The Citizens Election Program has had success when reducing outside and or large money contributions. In a study by Common Cause from 2020 they measured individual contributions by voters in 2006 before the CEP was started and in 2018. The results showed that in 2018 contributions from other sources had been reduced from 51% of total contributions down to just 1%. This is a drastic reduction in contributions by sources other than individuals.
In addition, and as shown previously in 2018, 85% of general assembly candidates participated in the program. The result of this reduction in special interest money has been a reduction in special interest influence in the legislature. The CEP has also brought Connecticut state legislature races from one of the least competitive in the country to the fourth most competitive in the country. More candidates are getting involved and it has created a more engaged electorate.
This system is not perfect and critics of it may claim it is unnecessary, but I disagree, it couldn’t be more necessary. Publicly funded elections are vital to slowing the pace of the expansion of campaign spending that the Supreme Court has allowed. The CEP and programs like it in several other states are an example of effective campaign finance law and how elections should be run.
Yes it needs reform, but the Citizens Election Program is on the cutting edge of campaign finance reform, a lot of what is done here is experimental. Only 4 states have public financing programs and they all learn from each other. Connecticut should be proud it has such a program to keep out special interests and make it so that the average resident could run for office without seeking corporate money.