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David Nightingale: Fair Elections, Revisited

Our voting has slowly developed from 'white males' with property qualifications, to the inclusion of women (by the 19th Amendment of 1920). Now, in 2014, there are still privileged entities (read 'deep pocket corporations') attempting to sway our votes, and looking back, it's astonishing that so many countries in the world excluded so many groups.

In January 2012 New York State's Governor Andrew Cuomo, said, in his state of the state address (quote): 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.

It is now almost 15 years since the late “Granny D” of New Hampshire walked, at 90, across America for this cause.

Almost a dozen states currently have some form of clean elections, elections that are not corrupted by big money. For example, there was Maine's enactment (in 1996 for the year 2000) of fair elections for legislative and gubernatorial races, and Arizona's similar legislation in 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, and around the year 2002, almost all of the candidates who used Maine's public funding method said they were either 'reasonably' or 'very' satisfied with the system. The amount of money they were given to work with was described by most as 'just about right'. [Ref.1]  This is not to say, of course, that there hasn't been opposition, with some people preferring the influence of big corporations. However, I've never been able to fathom how the Supreme Court, in what still seems to be an astonishingly retrograde ruling, could ever equate a corporation with an individual. I think again of the unique Granny D.

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 are certainly debatable there.

Today, surely few would deny that fair and clean elections are essential for a democracy to work properly and to be trusted by the populace, yet corporate power has been increasingly muddying democracy for quite some years. 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 then reward them with such things as tax breaks and/or the enactment of laws which in many cases may not benefit us, the public.

 So here, in March 2014, I hope that members of the NYS Legislature (famously referred to in 2004, as 'dysfunctional' by the Brennan Center – which is a public policy institute [ref.2] ), will finally address the topic of NY State's Fair Elections. I really hope Governor Cuomo will stick with his 2012 state-of-the-state speech –  in which he said, quoting again –   '...we must achieve reform by implementing a system of public funding of elections'.

If he doesn't, I'm afraid many of us are going to become even more skeptical.


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

2. The Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, 11/6/2003.

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. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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