On July 2, The News and Observer’s Web site posted an article recapping a report on North Carolina’s publicly financed judicial elections by the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). The newspaper’s disregard of insightful reporting about the report’s potential impact on upcoming elections is unsettling.
The report applauds the Legislature in their quest to convince the voter that the judges they elect will be untainted by unscrupulous contributors. However, the real danger posed by this report lies in its recommendations for improvement.
The Only Prescription is…More Tax Money
When the Judicial Campaign Reform Act was passed in 2002, it established two primary methods of revenue generation. The first was a “check-off” box placed on the income tax form of every North Carolinian. If a filer wanted to contribute three dollars (at no extra penalty), he or she would “opt-in” by ticking the appropriate box.
- In 2004, only 7 percent of filers opted in and the program has averaged about $1.1 million in revenue annually. The North Carolina Center for Voter Education estimates that, for the program to remain solvent, 11 percent of filers must opt-in.
- The CGS report blames this dearth of participation on “confusion.” They advocate changing to an “opt-out” box that would force the filer to physically deny this support.
- They also recommend that failure to check any box would automatically designate three dollars toward the fund.
The second major source of revenue for the program is a $50 surcharge paid by attorneys. From 2002 to 2004, the surcharge was voluntary, and as a result, it only generated $59,000. As a result of the low figure, legislators enacted a law in 2005 making the surcharge mandatory.
Mixed Results = Expansion
The program is only six years old, but the CGS report indicates that it has been an overwhelming success. Since its enactment, 75 percent of candidates who have run for high judicial office have taken public money. There are key reasons for this, and one of them is not “civic diligence.”
- You need very little seed money to qualify for public financing.1
- The unique nature of judicial campaigns makes fundraising more difficult.2
- Due to strict rules governing the candidates who do not take public money, there is little incentive not to do so.
As a result of the program’s “success,” the CGS report makes its desires clear to expand the program to cover judicial primary elections as well. For its part, the Legislature has approved of programs that expand the reach of public campaign financing.
- In 2007, a pilot program was established providing $4.6 million for three low-visibility, but partisan statewide races.3
- In 2007, the Legislature passed a law allowing for public financing of the Mayoral and Town Council election for the Town of Chapel Hill.
Although this report is new and has not yet been discussed by the Legislature, it is important to note that these reports often serve as the intellectual basis for legislation. The press’s minimal scrutiny of the report does not do justice to its potential long-term impact. Lawmakers could use public financing as a way to dictate the terms of a campaign for public office. The report argues that taxpayers are “confused” when they refuse to “opt-in,” but it gives no empirical data to reinforce this contention. Instead it seeks to capitalize on this supposed confusion by forcing the taxpayer to “opt-out.” If the program is expanded further, it will require more money to fund it. Is it impossible to think that the Legislature will not do to the taxpayer what it did to the legal community when it came up short, and force you to contribute? This report paves the way for precisely that.
2 North Carolina Law does not allow judicial candidates to endorse other political candidates which reduces coattail fundraising. They are also forbidden from indicating stances on particular issues and cases.
3 Commissioner of Insurance, State Auditor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction