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David Nightingale: Clean Elections


 In an earlier essay I mentioned that there was no reason why pure scientists such as myself shouldn't have a say in politics -- particularly since law-making is sometimes regarded, wrongly I believe, as being just in the province of those trained in law.

A few years ago, a Republican, deciding to run for public office for the first time, said his wife exclaimed “you will not spend a nickel of our money to run for political office!” That man was State Senator Chandler Woodcock, of Maine [ref.1]who, like many others, availed themselves of Maine's 1996 Clean Elections law.

 A quote by New York State's Governor Andrew Cuomo, taken directly from his state of the state address, in January 2012, reads: “It's time we make sure that all New Yorkers have an equal voice in our political process ... We must achieve fundamental campaign reform by implementing a system of public funding of elections.

 Sadly, many elections have become tainted by (quote/unquote)'corporate personhood', wherein those with the most clout (read: money) will generally (with a few exceptions) win.

At least  7 states currently have clean elections. For example, Maine (since enactment in 1996 for the year 2000 legislative and gubernatorial races), and Arizona since 1998. These systems involve funding that, roughly speaking, comes from $5 citizen donations, as well as things like a surcharge on traffic fines, and check-offs on tax-return forms, and candidates running under the system must agree not to take private money. In 2010, Arizona's civil-fines component alone yielded $92 million – so funding didn't seem to be a problem.

Around the year 2002 about 96% of the candidates who used Maine's public funding method said they were either 'reasonably' or 'very' satisfied with the system, and that the amount of money they were given to work with was 'just about right'. [Ref.1]

In those public systems, a Commission distributes the funds to qualifying candidates, and matching funds are triggered when any privately funded candidate spends more than the publicly funded candidate. (Interestingly, this latter part of the AZ law was struck down in 2010 by the United States Supreme Court, which claimed that it violated the  First Amendment of the Constitution. A similar case in California claimed that it did not violate the 1st Amendment, so things seem debatable there.)

In a letter to Col. Elkins in 1864 Abraham Lincoln wrote:“... congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end ... [but] I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country... Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow... The money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed...” [Ref.2]

Those problems that Lincoln referred to have been increasingly muddying democracy for quite some years, and any large group such as an oil industry, a gas fracking industry, a health insurance industry, a teachers' union or a gun lobby, can help pay for the campaigns of candidates who, if elected, will reward them with such things as tax breaks and the enactment of laws which in many cases may not benefit the public.

So, specifically, I hope that members of the NYS Legislature (referred to as 'dysfunctional' by the Brennan Center [ref.3] ) will take up NY State's 2012 Fair Elections Act just as soon as possible; and, as someone involved in a field outside the law, I personally hope Governor Cuomo will stick with his state of the state speech –  in which he said, quoting again --  '...we must achieve reform by implementing a system of public funding of elections'.   


1. From A.J.Higgins, of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network; (more than 1 recent article.)

2. Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Col Wm.F.Elkins, Nov 21,1864; www.ratical.org/corporations/Lincoln.html.

3. Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law,2004, 2006, 2008.


Dr. David Nightingale is professor emeritus of physics at The State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.