The news of Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) $150 million haul in September with an average donation under $100 combined with Obama's decision to opt out of the partial presidential public financing system gave political prognosticators and pundits the opportunity to declare the death of public financing. They signed the certificate and called the morgue.
And with the way the presidential system is working these days, that's no surprise. When you have a campaign finance system that hasn't been updated in 30 years, there are going to be problems. In 1974 when the reform was passed, you couldn't even buy a personal computer let alone make a small donation over the internet. Times have changed but the Watergate-era reform hasn't.
One only has to look to the slightly different model of full public financing of elections, or Clean Elections, in the states and Congressional attention to the problem to see that efforts to put voters ahead of campaign donors is anything but dead. Clean Elections systems are in place across the country. In states like Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, candidates are supercharging the power of small donors and showing how public financing can level the political playing field and allow candidates from more diverse backgrounds to run-and win-elective office.
Eighty-four percent of the Maine legislature was elected using public financing. In Arizona, nine of 11 statewide officials are Clean Elections candidates, including Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). This year in Connecticut, the first year public financing has been available to candidates in the state, 75 percent of candidates are using the system.
In 2007, Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Presidential Public Funding Act of 2007 aimed at updating the ailing system before 2012 rolls around.
In Congress, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) only further show the support and momentum behind Clean Elections-style public financing with their sponsorship of the Fair Elections Now Act.
Public financing isn't dead. Voters and candidates in the seven states and two cities with Clean Elections systems will tell you that. The presidential system just has a bit of a cold. With a dose of Clean Elections from the states and leadership from the 111th Congress and the next president, the presidential system will be back and stronger than ever.