The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission today voted to recommend that new limits be placed on large contributions corrupting the political process in Washington State. The limits would affect corporations, PAC’s and associations.
According to the Seattle Times
The five-member commission voted unanimously to ask Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature to consider prohibiting groups such as the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Service Employees International Union to give their general funds directly to political action committees that support or oppose candidates. The groups would also be prohibited from using general funds for independent expenditures such as TV or radio ads.
The ban would apply to state offices, including the governor, the Legislature and the Supreme Court.
The commission also wants leaders to consider limiting the annual amount of money individuals or PACs can contribute to other PACs.
We think its high time that the Legislature enact further measures to stop special interests from trying to buy votes from the public. While they may not be putting dollars in people’s pockets like in old, the ability of wealthy organizations like the BIAW to saturate the political process with uncontrolled spending subverts the idea of fair elections.
We are only allowed one vote per person. Yet we know that dollars buy access to the public. Your vote becomes meaningless unless all candidates have fair access to get their campaign message before the voters and are not swamped by special interest megaspending.
The state can help this process by limiting what any individual can give, either directly or indirectly to any candidate. With computers and electronic campaign finance reporting it is easy to keep tabs of how much anyone gives to support or oppose a candidate. Being limited to giving $1400 per election directly to a statewide candidate but being allowed also to give $400,000 to a so called independent PAC that is also spending money to elect that candidate, means you really have no limits on campaign contributions.
Any limit imposed has to be calculated as a total given to a candidate, either directly to the candidate’s registered committee or indirectly to any other campaign committee including a committee of one (an expenditure by a wealthy patron on his own) that is supporting the candidate. Then the influence of concentrated money by special interests is eliminated.
A balancing needs to take place between the rights of free speech and special interest domination of the electoral process such that a narrow special interest can gain an unfair advantage in placing someone they support in office who then acts preferentially toward the donor while fulfilling their duties of office.
The state can go a long way toward reducing the influence of special interest money in elections by providing more public forums and debates among the candidates. For example, State sponsored candidate forums run by the Secretary of State’s Office for the public and press and media in an area that comprises one to two Congressional Districts would got a long way toward helping expose candidates to voters. That means a minimum of 5 to a maximum of 9 candidate forums before the primary and another series for the general election.
Such publicly sponsored forums would help to offset the argument that restricting large donors discriminates against certain candidates and limits their free speech rights.
Another approach is a system of publicly financed campaigns. See Washington Public Campaigns which is pushing for a bill for public financing of judicial races in Washington State in the upcoming Legislative session starting in January. A bill is currently being drafted to be introduced.