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Clean Elections: Berkeley's Solution to Payback Politics

After election day, following the most expensive campaign in U.S. history, it will be payback time. Our president -- whether Kerry or Bush -- will have more than $300 million to return to the big-money donors who funded his campaign. And pay back he will, dispensing favors to wealthy corporations and special interests.

Giveaways to big-money, special-interest donors are way of life in Washington. The system encourages them. Candidates need money to run for office. Special interests with special requests are the biggest source of campaign contributions.

The story is the same in Sacramento. For example, utility industry donations greased the passage of electricity deregulation, burdening Californians with one of the most expensive policy mistakes in state history.

It may seem that there is no hope for change. But there is a solution -- a proven, tested system that prevents special interests from buying our democracy. It is already working in Arizona and Maine. On Tuesday, voters in Berkeley can bring it to California as well. It is called the clean-elections system.

This system provides a limited amount of public funding to candidates who agree not to accept private money and not to use their own money in their campaigns. Candidates qualify for participation by collecting a large number of $5 contributions from voters in the district they seek to represent.

Candidates running "clean" wash their hands of donor funds and donor favors. While campaigning, they are free to address constituents' concerns, rather then begging for strings-attached funds at the special-interest trough. Once elected, they can be responsive to voters, not beholden to donors.


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Maine voters passed the clean-elections system in 1996. By 2002, a majority of state legislators were elected running "clean." Maine became the first state in the country to adopt universal health care, which had been blocked for years by the health-insurance industry.

The clean-elections system also increases political participation, bringing in new candidates and new voters. Arizona first implemented clean elections in 2000. From 1998 to 2002, the number of minority candidates increased substantially, and voter turnout increased more than 20 percent, according to the Arizona Clean Elections Institute.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is the first governor in U.S. history elected without private funding. She says that Arizona's clean-elections system is "the difference between being able to go out and spend your time talking with voters ... as opposed to being on the phone selling tickets to a $250 a plate fund-raiser."

Local campaign costs are also climbing, limiting who can consider running for office. According to official election data, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spent more than $3 million on his campaign. Even in Berkeley, Mayor Tom Bates and his opponent spent a combined $430,000.

On Tuesday, Berkeley voters have a chance to set an example for California and the nation. Measure H would make Berkeley the first city in the United States to adopt the clean-elections system already tested and proven in Arizona and Maine.

Berkeley was the first city to implement curbside recycling and the first to divest from South Africa. In reforming our broken election system, Berkeley is once again leading the way. Berkeley voters can help make history Tuesday by voting "yes" on Measure H.

Barbara Lee

Barbara Lee

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a Democrat representing California's 13th Congressional District. In 2001, Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the original AUMF which authorized President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan and has served as the legal basis of the so-called "Global War on Terror" ever since.

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