May 15. 2017 8:33PM

Another View -- John Rauh: Biden is right about public financing of elections


Joe Biden brought the Democrats at the recent Shaheen McIntyre annual dinner to their feet when he said, “Move to public financing of elections, and you will change the whole damn world.” He also caught the attention of the Union Leader, which published an editorial titled “Biden’s Bad Idea” that chronicled the arguments of those opposed to public financing.

Joe’s right. But first, where is the Union Leader wrong?

Calling public financing of elections a system that taxpayers underwrite to pay politicians to run fails to acknowledge that our current system of selling influence to wealthy donors who buy influence by financing our elections undermines values that are fundamental to our democracy and to our country’s future.

The editorial is obviously right that public funds will be provided to candidates some citizens disagree with. That is a price we would pay to get rid of a system that has no place in a democracy. It should be noted that in every system that has been adopted, there are provisions whereby citizens decide which candidates qualify for public financing.

And the editorial is right that a public financing system will not prevent spending by rich candidates and Super PACs. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s perspective on the First Amendment. Sure I’d like to see Citizens United overturned. But it’s the law and not a significant problem. Public financing still works if the system provides candidates with the opportunity to have enough money to run a competitive campaign, communicate their message and answer attacks. Candidates do not need the most money to win. If they did Hillary would be President.

But why is Joe right?

If our country’s crises are to be managed well, our challenges met, our opportunities capitalized on, and our values upheld, it is imperative that we elect Presidents and the great majority of the 535 members of Congress who are wise and highly competent citizens with outstanding character.

Although we have a number of excellent members of Congress, today more than 75 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress’s performance, a clear majority had negative views of both major parties’ 2016 candidates for President, and more than 50 percent disapprove of the President’s performance.

This disturbing lack of confidence in our elected leaders clearly indicates our system for selecting our national leaders is deeply flawed. We allow special interests with wealth to have great influence over who gets elected while we exclude many extremely able citizens with outstanding character from being candidates because they are not wealthy or do not have the contacts to raise sufficient campaign money. We need many of them.

There is a solution. By enacting a system of public financing for congressional and presidential elections, money will no longer be a barrier for prospective candidates who are not wealthy and not able to raise the funds but who do have qualities we need if our government is to perform well.

And once in office they will not be catering to the interests of wealthy donors but centering their energy and time hearing their constituents’ perspectives and considering policies they believe are best for our nation. The benefits will be transformational at a cost of less than $6 per citizen per year.

Citizens of Arizona, Connecticut and Maine are positive about their systems that publicly finance their state elections, and jurisdictions across the country have adopted similar systems. Polls indicate the majority of citizens in both major political parties will seriously consider public financing of our federal elections.

Our country’s experience with transformational reforms reminds us that the road is not easy and that it takes reformers calling out to their fellow citizens to demand it. Once again it is time to make the call to strengthen our democracy and give our nation a government capable of meeting our growing and complex challenges. Our country’s future is at stake.

John Rauh was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1992.