Voters First: A ‘Guest’ Column

by Jay Heck and Mike McCabe

July 5, 2000

Madison - There is plenty of consensus about what’s wrong with the way elections are paid for in Wisconsin. What’s been missing is a solid consensus on what to do about it.

Logo: Voters First!Some legislators have blamed different advocacy organizations for offering differing prescriptions for what ails our political system. We’re now speaking with one voice. Common Cause in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, as the leading reform advocates in Wisconsin, joined with the League of Women Voters and 17 other public interest organizations to unite around a comprehensive reform plan we’re calling "Voters First."

Voters First re-establishes campaign spending limits, tightens limits on campaign donations and utilizes the best solutions to the growing problem of independent electioneering by special interest groups.

Why it’s needed is clear. The complete collapse of our state’s campaign finance system – once a model for the nation rendered toothless by the political dentistry practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike – means we now have campaigns without rules. No spending limits. Huge sums of undisclosed and unregulated money flowing into the process from shadowy sources. Campaigns hijacked by a handful of the most powerful special interest groups. And these groups then come to the legislature with their hands out demanding a return on their investment.

The legislature has responded to this crisis with partisan gridlock. Both houses passed versions of campaign finance reform they knew the other house would reject. And the two sides never sat down to work out their differences. Instead, they just blamed each other for reform’s demise.

Voters First is a common sense recipe for breaking the partisan logjam on this issue. Our plan takes some provisions from Republican reform proposals, others from Democratic reform proposals and splits the difference between the two sides on other issues.

While Voters First very carefully walks the partisan tightrope in order to create a formula for bipartisan agreement, it also contains unprecedented and even revolutionary provisions that, if enacted, would make Wisconsin the national leader in campaign finance reform.

Among its many features, Voters First:

  • Deals head on with independent electioneering by special interest groups by providing matching grants to candidates who are victims of outside spending and requiring groups that run so-called "issue ads" to identify themselves and disclose the source of the money used to pay for the ads. Wisconsin would be the first state in the nation to enact such an approach.
  • Creates an incentive to stay within spending limits by providing matching grants to candidates whose opponents refuse to accept public financing and abide by the spending limits. If enacted in Wisconsin, this provision would be the first of its kind in the country at the state legislative level.
  • Establishes stringent spending limits that allow candidates to spend less than a third as much as the highest spending gubernatorial and senate candidates spent in 1998 and just over half as much as the highest spending assembly candidate spent.
  • Reduces the clout of big donors by cutting the individual contribution limits for legislative races in half and reducing the limit for the governor’s race from $10,000 to $1,000.

Voters First would restore sanity to a campaign finance system that is out of control. The lawless environment in which elections are now conducted is great for the special interests who give all the money. And it’s great for those in power who collect the donations. But it leaves ordinary voters out in the cold. And it is corrupting our public policymaking process.

As its name implies, our proposal aims to put voters back in charge. It would level the playing field for candidates, curb special interest money and prevent a few of the biggest and wealthiest groups from doing all the talking at election time. And it does it in a fair, balanced way that requires both Democrats and Republicans to give a little.

With the leading reform groups now united on a reform proposal, lawmakers will no longer be able to use our differences as an excuse for their inaction. They’ll have to stand tall and say yes or no to campaign finance reform.

There’s nothing like an upcoming election to get a politician’s attention. During this election season, tell the candidates in your area that your vote depends on them putting voters first.

Jay Heck is the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Voters First Press Release