By Sam A. Fedele
Public financing of state-level elections, championed by the Brennan Center for Justice, proposed as an anti-corruption measure by the Moreland Commission and backed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is a disaster in the making. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC was a game changer, but reformers steeled to a once-viable solution have failed to adapt their playbooks. For thanks to this and related decisions, those with motive to corrupt our electoral and legislative processes have license to spend unlimited amounts of money to do so. And mere legislation cannot fix that.
Imagine that a well-respected member of the community decides to run for office using taxpayer money. Further suppose that the contested seat is held by a committee chairman critical to a particular industry group. To believe that the publicly financed candidate has a reasonable chance to win is to naively believe that the special interest will not exercise its legal right to drown its opponent with a barrage of attack ads.
It gets worse. Public financing is available to all, including incumbents. So a shady politician can refuse large donations and run with public money to create the impression that he is indebted to no one but the voters. As a bonus it saves his funders the money previously allocated for base campaign expenses. And without accountability, his funding godfathers can legally swamp their candidate’s opponent with a cacophony of expensive ad buys. Public financing not only fails to prevent corruption, it subsidizes it.
Finally, consider the counter-intuitive implications of public financing “success.” In an ideal implementation, each candidate in every race would run his campaign with public money. This is reformer nirvana, the ultimate measure of success. But because of highly organized super PACs, each and every race of significance would be decided by private interests. Election outcomes and legislative decisions would continue to be determined by the elite, now with a substantially smaller investment. Perfect indeed!
So, please do not try to sell public financing of elections as an anti-corruption measure, because it’s an assertion that was difficult to support even before the ruling in Citizens United and impossible to defend in the face of increasingly sophisticated super PACs. Dumping public money into an infinitely deep sea of private money will simply invite more sharks into the water.
It’s time to build the constitutional infrastructure legislators need to write robust anti-corruption laws. New York needs to follow the 16 states that have petitioned Congress to enact an amendment to the Constitution to reel in outside spending so money-driven corruption can be effectively arrested.
Sam A. Fedele has worked with Citizen Action of New York and Rochester Metro Justice on public financing models and strategies since 2006.