I was really happy to see the two-part report on “Voter-Owned Elections” here on Chapelboro.com. We are now in the second election cycle of the test that the North Carolina General Assembly authorized Chapel Hill to conduct during municipal elections.

If you wish to learn about the specifics details of the test program, you can read about the town’s public campaign financing system at this link. But I’m more concerned about what the program’s assumptions and what it means to us in our local elections. First, I think we can all agree that elections have become expensive propositions, but why has that happened? To file for a Chapel Hill position the fee is $5.00. Arguably, all expended funds beyond that requirement are a function of candidate behavior, and especially, candidate competition.

We have had successful candidates in some elections that spent very little so we know it is not mandatory to spend big bucks to win. We also know that those yard/road signs, stickers, newspaper ads, and slick color mailings drive the cost of elections right up there and candidates say all the time that they have to do it because others do it. But why should my tax dollars have to fund a candidate’s completive ambitions?

When we had the Town Council debate on the program before its approval, proponents argued that we needed the VOE program to ensure that “big money,” particularly dollars from that group some in Chapel Hill love to demonize – developers, would not “buy” candidates. It’s interesting that some of the same people who made this argument also argue that the law requiring a photo ID to vote is trying to solve a voter fraud problem that doesn’t exist. When you challenge their contribution assumptions, they are not able to point to an example of where “big money” from outside ever influenced the outcome of a Chapel Hill election.

Seems to me like the argument against the photo IDs (and I support the argument against the photo IDs) cuts just the same for claims of buying candidates by special interests or outside forces. We have no real evidence that this has ever happened in Chapel Hill. Just to say that citizens from the business community support candidates that will represent their interests does not mean anyone is “buying” candidates. It does mean that our system works and voters are expressing their interests. If the VOE program could really control human behavior, then what happened in the 2009 election would not have happened. You may remember that in 2009 a citizen had some cards printed up and mailed to voters telling them whom they should not vote for in the mayoral election. At the last minute, the unnamed citizen registered his PAC to comply with State election laws, so his mailing was legal. Given how close the outcome was, it’s not a stretch to believe that the cards had an impact.

The winning candidate was in the VOE program and the outside of the campaign and, according to the winning candidate, the “uncoordinated expenditure” did not have his approval. But the money spent did not count against the candidate. So even with VOE a single citizen or group of citizens can spend an unlimited amount in a campaign for or against a candidate, just as long as they comply with the election laws.

Last but not least, there’s a problem to me when you limit how much a candidate can spend of their own money and the money contributed by their friends during an election so that more tax dollars are not given to the opponent. We have a pretty low individual contribution limit in Chapel Hill ─ $200, so isn’t that a sufficient control? How far are we willing to go in limiting individual rights? Are we also going to give extra money to offset incumbent advantage? We have spending reports for a reason. If someone doesn’t like how much a candidate spends, or who the candidate accepts money from, then they shouldn’t vote for them.

We can then clearly send a message to candidates about how we feel about their spending and their supporters. Having informed voters, accurate and timely reporting, and letting voters exercise their own judgment will truly make local elections voter owned. What do you think?