I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that faith in our political system is low. In fact, ask most voters what they think of politicians and I am sure you won’t hear many nice things. There are a lot of reasons for this, but none more so than the perception that politicians only care about getting re-elected. As evidence of this perception voters point to campaign contributions, especially large ones, given to elected officials and the idea that candidates vote or act according to the wishes of those contributors. This creates the age old question in a democracy; did the money influence the policy position or did the policy position influence the donation?
Let me first say that of course politicians want to be re-elected, and that should be the motivating factor for them to work their hardest on behalf of their constituents. Like any other employee – good, hard work should create job security. But also like other employees; honest, tough job reviews are needed from time to time to make sure they keep up that good work. In a democracy that job review comes in the form of competitive elections.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get competitive elections because the system of financing elections keeps too many people out of the process. It takes a lot of money to run for office; about $100,000 for a County Legislator and well into the millions of dollars for higher offices. Someone has to pay for all those mailings, billboards, campaign offices, polls and Facebook ads. As a result, too often challengers need to have already established connections to big-money interests to even get their foot in the door. Meanwhile, incumbents spend a disproportionate amount of their time chasing donors who can write large checks to raise that kind of money, reinforcing the perception that large donors buy off politicians. This keeps good people out of the process and representatives away from their constituents.
In Suffolk, we have taken a big step toward ending that perception and leveling the playing field with the passage of campaign finance reform that puts the emphasis back on the voter. I authored the recently enacted law to create the Fair Elections Matching Fund that will create a mechanism for candidates to receive matching funds for small contributions given by residents from the district. It also drastically reduces maximum contributions from any donor. Under this new program a $25 donation from a voter is as important if not more so then the large donation from a special interest; not only allowing but encouraging candidates to spend more time talking to voters.
Most important, it will open up elections to more candidates who have true grass roots community support so that neither fundraising nor the party machine can block good candidates from the ballot. More candidates with the ability to get their message out means more competitive elections, fewer incumbents resting on their name recognition, and better governance for the people. All of which is needed to restore the public’s confidence in the political process.
- Rob Calarco
Deputy Presiding Officer, 7th LD