“If changes are not made to the campaign finance system that strengthen political parties and offset the growing clout of independent groups, the electoral system in New Jersey will be unrecognizable in a very short number of years. – Jeff Brindle – Executive Director, NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC)
In the past 15 years our campaign finance system has undergone fundamental change. Witness the rise of SuperPAC’s with unlimited funds, 501(c)(4) organizations with undisclosed donor sources, unions with large treasuries, and individuals with corporate connections. The result: our New Jersey political parties have been weakened while other groups within and outside of NJ have gained the upper hand. The biggest losers: the individual NJ citizen whose donations become less of a factor while they are bombarded by outside often unaccountable forces. We can’t alter the trajectory in the current midterm elections but change we must and change we can in our state.
Spending in New Jersey elections by independent groups has risen 11,458 percent over the past 12 years. These groups spent $47.5 million on last year’s election, more than triple the sum spent by the two state parties and four legislative leadership committees. “Our NJ law is so inadequate” says Jeff Brindle, “that most independent spending can be done without voters ever knowing who provided the funds.”
The Commission’s proposals include registration and donor disclosure by independent organizations, including disclosure of contractor donations to outside groups. Proposals involving political parties include increasing contribution limits on donations made to them, exempting political parties from pay-to-play, allowing parties to participate in gubernatorial elections, allowing parties to contribute to each other, and loosening federal rules on party state accounts.
Recent past reform efforts have been a dismal failure. There was an effort in 2013 led by Sens. James Beach and Linda Greenstein, bill S-2748, proposing a sweeping overall of campaign finance laws which went nowhere. In 2017 Assemblyman Troy Singleton’s two bills were equally unsuccessful – bill A3902 which would have required disclosure by independent expenditure committees; raised certain campaign contribution limits; and repealed certain intraparty transfers, and A3903 which would have increasesd disclosure of political contributions by business entities with public contracts; created uniform law for contributions by such entities; and repealed local option to set contribution limits for business entities.
As the Legislature has had no appetite for this reform, we have to take on the cause ourselves, as citizens and voters, to bring about change. Jeff Brindle’s response was, “The growing influence of these groups makes it more important than ever for the Legislature to update state laws to reflect recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that permit full disclosure by independent groups.”
Self-financing campaigns by multi-millionaires throw a golden wrench into the process putting other interested candidates at a severe disadvantage. Our most expensive gubernatorial campaign was in 2005 between two self financing millionaires – Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester – where $88 million was spent. In 2016 Tom MacArthur (R) took over a House seat after spending $5 million of his own monies. In 2017 millionaire Phil Murphy spent $22.5 million from his own pocket, mostly either prior to the primary or during the primary election, while still being able to accumulate millions more from outside sources. Then with a huge war chest he elected to participate in the state’s public financing program, two dollars in public funds for every $1 in private funds, allowing him to coast on a Blue wave of sound progressive policies and a weak opponent into the governorship. In the current 2018 campaign we again have the wealthy Rep. MacArthur (R) and newcomer multi-millionaire Bob Hugin (R) running for the US Senate.
As we pointed out in Part III, here are some remedies to reduce the influence of private wealth: New York City matches small donations six-to-one for those candidates who agree to contribution and spending limits. Maine offers a public grant to candidates who raise a qualifying number of $5 donations. Also Seattle provides every voter with four $25 “democracy vouchers,” to be distributed as they wish among candidates who agree to abide by spending limits.
The place to start the fight against Citizens United is not with the slow moving and now somewhat conservative Supreme Court, or even Washington, D.C., but here in New Jersey and other states. With federal law against us we must look for alternative forums. As the Atlantic argued in an article, our efforts must be in amplifying the contributions of ordinary citizens, reducing candidates’ reliance on Big Money, and enticing candidates to accept voluntary limits on their spending, Such laws can encourage politicians to pay more attention to all their constituents, not just the wealthy ones. By making realistic amounts of public financing available, and insisting on more disclosure of donors, the reforms underway elsewhere have made it possible for a wider range of candidates.
Our fight is not for the faint-hearted as so many politicians or would-be politicians like being able to over-stuff their war chests, but it’s a battle well worth fighting. A national poll in 2017 indicated a majority of Americans support campaign finance reform and that 48% opposed versus 30% who supported the court’s Citizens United decision. We have an opportunity in New jersey to reclaim the American dream, strengthen our financing system, reduce the torrent of special-interest, outside, and unaccountable Big Money, and mitigate the influence of the very wealthy self-financing their own campaigns. As Bernie Sanders has said, “Campaign finance reform is the most important issue facing us today.” Let’s do it.