Victory: West Virginia Legislature Makes Judicial Public Financing Program Permanent
The West Virginia Senate passed legislation on Saturday to make permanent the state’s public financing program for seats on the state’s highest court. The bill passed the House last month.
Originally a pilot project set to expire this summer, West Virginia’s public financing system was instituted after the United States Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., which the Brennan Center for Justice describes as holding “that a litigant’s extraordinary campaign spending created a constitutionally impermissible risk of judicial bias.”
Under the program, candidates for the Supreme Court of Appeals can run competitive campaigns for office without relying on the same wealthy special interests that could have cases come before the Court. Candidates can qualify to receive a grant to fund their campaigns by collecting a set number of small dollar donations from people across the state.
In addition to making the program permanent, the legislation increases the funds available to candidates who face a contested primary challenge or a contested general election, a response to the Supreme Court's Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett decision that threw out so-called "rescue funds," which made sure publicly financed candidates could compete against privately-financed opponents.
A lot of the credit for this important victory goes to West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, a broad-based coalition of organizations that not only lobbied the legislature but also built a grassroots movement to support the system.
West Virginia is the second state legislative body this year to pass a bill aimed at raising the voices of small donors in the political process. In March, the New Mexico legislature passed a bill to upgrade the state’s public financing system for judicial and Public Regulation Commission elections. Despite a governor’s veto, the response reflects a growing recognition by legislators across the country of the groundswell of citizen support for a political system that is focused on the people, not heavily funded special interests.
We could see even more wins soon. In Hawaii, a conference committee is set to convene between the House and Senate on legislation passed by both chambers to update the state’s small donor matching system for legislative races that was passed nearly 35 years ago.
In New York, a broad coalition of organizations is working with legislative leaders to pass a matching funds program modeled on the successful New York City system. Independent Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. Jeff Klein introduced a campaign finance overhaul bill last week that includes small donor matching and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will introduce similar legislation this week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also backing the plan.
Empowering small donors is a critical way to strengthen our democracy in the post-Citizens United era of big money super PACs. These state efforts are proof that victory is possible.