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Fair Elections Matter: Women’s Two-Fold Stake in Public Financing of Campaigns

Linda Tarr-Whelan

It’s not just happenstance: Women have a two-fold stake in campaign finance reform, particularly public financing of state campaigns for public office. Why? First, tamping down the influence that money can buy is a big step towards delivering positive change for women’s priorities. If you care about having more women at the table when decisions are made, seeing that paid family leave and sick leave become law, fighting violence against women, finally achieving equal pay or a host of other issues, it is essential to overcome the big-money obstruction by re-balancing the scales for citizen power.

Secondly, when there is a critical mass of women legislators -- 30% or more -- there is a better likelihood of action to clean up state elections and move forward to solve critical issues.  Six of the top ten states with the most women legislators (all over that important tipping point threshold) have passed full or partial public financing of campaigns. None of the bottom ten (with 11-18% women) has done so. Women are taking on the toughest of state issues: Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado -- all with 30% of more women state legislators -- have recently passed tough gun control measures.

More and more states are pressing for fair elections following corruption scandals and resignations that continue to fuel public cynicism in our ability to overcome stalemate. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with the Fair Elections Coalition, has called for public financing to turn government back to the people. Despite front-page stories of out-of-control politics it will be a tough fight. The problems are deeply entrenched and long-standing in a “pay-to-play” atmosphere.  In the 1970s, I founded what is now known as the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society and lobbied the legislature on women’s, workers and families issues. The New York Assembly didn’t resemble any civics textbook. The power of money set the stage as payments changed hands openly at the doors of the chambers. While elected officials go to Albany for the right reasons, too often special interests drown out the voices of ordinary voters.

Clearly change is needed to clean up elections but the long-term impacts are just becoming evident. The new Demos research report, “Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Campaign Financing” traces the results of public financing of elections in CT since the measure passed in 2005 after a gubernatorial scandal. It makes stunning reading on how this relatively simple -- and totally voluntary -- citizen’s election system makes a difference.

Public financing in Connecticut is popular across the political spectrum: 77% of the legislative winners in the last election participated along with all statewide constitutional officeholders. Candidates for any state office who wish to participate must raise an aggregate amount of small donations (between $5 and $100) from individuals living in their district early in the election year. Senate candidates must raise $15,000 from at least 300 residents while state representative candidates must raise $5,000 from at least 150 residents. Personal funds are limited and are reduced from public funds provided. No PAC’s, corporations or unions may contribute. The report confirms that legislators can focus on legislating with more bi-partisan coalitions. Without the focus on raising large donations -- especially during the legislative session -- there is a decline in lobbyist influence. More diverse candidates, particularly women, run and win since deep pockets are not required. In 2008, the number of women elected rose from 45 to 51, and in 2012, nine women were in the state Senate, one more than in 2006 and women comprised 29 percent of the legislature.

Besides opening the door to more women in public office, public financing has changed other power dynamics as well. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to require companies to provide paid sick days for their employees. The minimum wage has been increased. A new state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) now is 30% of the federal level. The Dream Act providing in-state tuition to undocumented students is now law. 

Fair Elections with public campaign financing instead of special interest money is critical to overcome obstacles preventing more women from winning public office and from passing the policies women have demanded year after year.

Linda Tarr-Whelan is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos