The Maryland General Assembly's apparent failure to embrace voluntary public financing of legislative races won't deter advocates from thinking bigger. Recently, Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania introduced "Fair Elections Now" legislation that uses similar methods to try to reduce the influence of special-interest money on campaigns -- but this time at the federal level. The proposal deserves a better fate than what happened in Annapolis, particularly given how astronomical the campaign finance numbers have grown in the presidential and congressional races ($5 billion in the last cycle).
Like the Maryland bill, the proposal is modeled after programs in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and North Carolina. No candidate for office is forced to take public money, but those who do must collect enough small donations from individuals to qualify for funding. Once they accept, they'll be limited to a specified amount depending on how competitive the race is.
The major knock against such programs is that they don't tend to give challengers a leg up on incumbents. That's true. But what they do accomplish is more crucial -- they result in fewer officeholders beholden to big campaign donors. And the public likes the idea; a recent poll of voters suggests a two-thirds approval rate that ran consistently across party lines.