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Commission would examine challenges of election reform

Correction appended.

Rhode Islanders for Fair Elections, a coalition of organizations that advocate for publicly financed elections, is working to pass legislation creating a commission to study the challenges facing state election reform. Bills proposing such a commission are currently under debate in the state House of Representatives and Senate.

The proposed commission would consist of three House members, three Senate members, the executive director of the Board of Elections and potentially "one outside expert" in public finance, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

The bill's efforts represent a "stepping stone" on the path toward achieving the coalition's larger goal of taking the money out of politics, said Emily Koo '13, co-coordinator of the student group Democracy Matters, one of the leaders of the coalition. Publicly funded elections similar to those already in place in Maine, Connecticut and Arizona "would allow you to run for office without being a really wealthy person or relying on money from special interests," Koo said.

Though a publicly financed election system already exists in Rhode Island, "it really doesn't provide candidates with enough to become viable in a campaign, and it has a lot of restrictions on how and where candidates can spend money," Koo said.

The current system provides partial campaign funding for general officers such as governor, secretary of state or treasurer, Marion said. If candidates "meet certain benchmarks, they can use public funds," he said.

The coalition's goal is to free politicians from obligations to the special interests that have financed their campaigns, Koo said. "Instead of going to the wealthy members of the community or going to companies out of state, you'd have to go door-to-door to get public approval for your campaign" through $5 contributions, she said.

Koo cited former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now secretary of homeland security, as an example of a politician who capitalized on the benefits of publicly financed elections. After being elected, Napolitano "wasn't beholden to pharmaceutical companies who normally donate to elections and was able to pass health care reform," Koo said.

But a bill expanding publicly funded elections — which legislators have proposed in recent years — "hasn't gone anyplace," Marion said, adding that the bill "doesn't get a vote, just gets a hearing."

Marion said the coalition decided to step back this year due to the economy, since expanding publicly financed elections would cost millions of dollars.

He added that attitudes against public finance are increasingly aggressive. He referred specifically to the Supreme Court case of McComish v. Bennett, in which Arizona state Rep. John McComish is challenging the "trigger provision" in Arizona's publicly financed election laws, which provides candidates who benefit from public financing with extra funds when their opponents raise more money than them.

The current bill is being sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-East Greenwich, Warwick and North Kingstown, and in the House by state Reps. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, and Chris Blazejewski, D-Providence and East Providence.

"I think a study commission looking at fair elections is a step in the right direction," Blazejewski wrote in an email to The Herald. "It's important that we study ways to increase voter participation and government responsiveness and decrease the undue influence of money in politics."

Hodgson said he expects the bill to be in front of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee in about a month, but legislators need to "tighten up the language" first. He pointed specifically to the bill's "somewhat ambiguous" provision that one member of the commission be a recognized expert in election finance.

Hodgson said he is optimistic about the bill's prospects. "I can't see many people opposed to taking a good, hard look at the way we conduct our elections."

The coalition has garnered the support of legislators who opposed the original bill to expand publicly financed elections, Koo said. She added that most opponents of publicly financed elections reject them on the grounds that they would cost the state too much money.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 has not yet developed a position on the bill, said Michael Trainor, his spokesman. Trainor declined to comment on Chafee's general position regarding the implementation of publicly financed elections.

"Sometimes study commissions are a way of passing people off," Koo said. But the coalition will keep working to achieve its goal regardless of the current bill's outcome.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified state Sen. Dawson Hodgson as a Democrat. It also attributed to Emily Koo '13 the quote "Money is free speech." The quote has been removed because, out of context, it does not accurately reflect her views. The Herald regrets the errors.



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