ACLU joins Public Campaign in support of publicly financed elections

Friday, October 29, 1999

Barely a week after the death of campaign-finance reform efforts in the Senate, the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Campaign have unveiled in a Washington Post advertisement their joint effort to shift debate over reform to talk of a full public-finance system for all federal elections.

“Here we are again,” the ad reads, “having just watched Congress go through its ritual dance, pretending to make a serious effort at campaign finance reform. Once again, the dance has ended in the way it always does: the music stops and nothing happens.”

Legislation designed to overhaul the nation's campaign-finance laws fell to a Republican filibuster on Oct. 19. The leading measure — sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., in the Senate and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., in the House — called for ban on “soft money,” the unrestricted donations that unions, corporations and some individuals give to the Republican and Democratic parties.

The successful filibuster marked the fourth time in as many congressional sessions that lawmakers have failed to pass such legislation.

But officials with the ACLU and Public Campaign say the campaign-finance debate needs to change.

Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, said that with soft-money legislation running into “a predictable dead end,” discussion now can focus on publicly financed elections.

Ira Glasser, executive director of the ACLU, agreed, saying: “We end up spending most of our time resisting and challenging in court various limits. It never really allows us or anyone else to move public financing into the mainstream of discussion. We're all caught up in the insanity of the current debate.”

Glasser and Miller said a debate over public financing would turn the discussion toward a time-honored, court-approved method of campaign finance. Although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal spending restrictions in its landmark Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976, it upheld the public funding of the presidential election.

Such a system is designed to reward candidates who voluntarily restrict their campaign spending with public money.

“Public financing would enhance electoral competition,” the ad reads. “It would allow a wider range of candidates to make their case to the voters. It would make public officials more accountable to the often narrow economic interests of a few big contributors. And it would allow public officials to do their job instead of huge amounts of time raising money.”

Several leading campaign-finance reform groups indicated that the ad didn't shock them as much as the involvement of the ACLU. The civil liberties group, they note, has strongly opposed many reform efforts, including a public-financing campaign in Maine.

“I think it's a great, great development,” said Nancy Northup, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Law and Justice, a group that supports changing the way America pays for elections. “I think it puts public financing on the agenda for many members of Congress.”

Although the ACLU endorsement of public financing surprised many reform watchers, Glasser insisted that the stance is not new but, in fact, a position held by the group since 1983.

“What's new is our joining with Public Campaign, which has long supported public financing, but, unlike the ACLU, has been exclusively a campaign-finance reform institution,” Glasser said. “What's also new is we're putting out ads and trying to be a little more aggressive in advocating this position that we've long held.”

The first ad appeared in The Washington Post on Oct. 20 with subsequent ads appearing in the Washington Times, The New York Times, Roll Call and the National Journal. Other ads are scheduled to appear next month in both New Republic and the Nation.

Despite the endorsement for a federal public-financing system, Glasser says the ACLU plans to continue its lawsuit in Maine, the first state to endorse public financing for its candidates.

“[Maine's system] appears to be voluntary but it coerces people into participating,” he said. “It rigs the system in such a way as to coerce people who aren't participating into participating.”

But he noted that the ACLU won't challenge a system adopted in Massachusetts last year because, he said, it allows voluntary compliance.