Voter Owned Elections
Voter-Owned Elections put voters at the center of the elections process where they belong.
Voter-Owned Elections provide a way for citizens without access to big donor networks to become elected officials. This proven alternative to our current big money system also reduces special interest influence on elections and policies and it can lead to a reduction in the tax breaks and other special provisions that deprive our state of more than $1 billion in revenues each year.
Over the last four decades, special interest money has played an increasingly disruptive role in democracy. Big money campaign donors have outbid the will of the people, affected election outcomes, corrupted public systems and interfered with public policy on a regular basis in such areas as healthcare, insurance, environmental safety and the regulation of financial services. (For a look at just how bad the situation is, see our Research section.) Fortunately, a number of states – including North Carolina – have fought back by enacting public campaign financing programs, or Voter-Owned Elections (VOE), as a way to restore the central role of ordinary citizens in the electoral and policy processes.
A Proven Tool
Many people believe there is nothing they can do to keep special interests from using huge campaign war chests to take over government and drive policy – but this is simply not true. Our experience in North Carolina has shown that Voter-Owned Elections are a proven way to return the control of elections and policy to the people. Democracy North Carolina and other members of the N.C. Voters for Clean Elections coalition have helped NC win national acclaim for our judicial program, the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, and our Council of State VOE Program.
How You Can Help
By understanding and supporting VOE, you can help us create a government that represents the people, rather then big campaign donors. Read on to learn more about VOE and sign up to be a Democracy Advocate so you can take action on this issue.
What Are Voter-Owned Elections?
Voter-Owned Elections are an alternative way to fund campaigns for specific offices. They are also called Fair Elections, Clean Elections and Public Campaign Financing. If a VOE program exists for an office, a candidate may opt to use the program, provided they meet the requirements and follow its rules. However, candidates do not have to participate in a VOE program: it is completely voluntary.
How Do Candidates Qualify?
VOE programs require that candidates show they have enough voter support to have a chance at winning election in order to qualify for funds from the VOE program. Candidates do this by collecting a specified number of small donations from a minimum number of registered voters. Qualifying candidates can then receive public grants to run their campaigns in exchange for accepting spending limits. They must follow special reporting rules and other guidelines, restrict their fundraising from big donors and show they are spending the program money only for campaign purposes.
How a VOE Program Works
Step 1: Candidate decides to seek public funds.
Step 2: Candidate proves he or she is a viable candidate.
Step 3: Qualifying candidates receive a public grant.
Step 4: Candidates abide by program rules.
What Are The Program Rules?
Rules vary from program to program and are tailored to the needs of the office being sought. But, in general, all VOE programs require participating candidates to follow these basic program rules:
- Thresholds must be met to qualify. This means candidates must raise a certain amount in small donations from a certain number of donors before they qualify.
- Private fundraising after qualifying is prohibited. Once a candidate has entered a VOE program, they may not supplement their campaign with new contributions from donors.
- Large donations from individuals, out of state donors and PACs are prohibited after the candidate enrolls in the program. This keeps special interests from corrupting the campaign financing process.
- Candidates may only use a limited amount of their personal money before qualifying. After qualifying, they may not use any of their private money.
- Unused funds are returned. After the election, VOE candidates must return any public money they did not use.
How Are VOE Programs Funded?
VOE programs are funded by a variety of methods. For example, NC’s judicial program, which was repealed in 2013, depended on taxpayers marking a voluntary check-off on their state tax forms. But they can also be funded by fees or surcharges paid by benefiting parties. A case in point: NC’s judicial program was also funded by a $50 surcharge on the annual dues that attorneys pay to the NC State Bar. The money collected helped finance a VOE program for statewide NC Supreme and Appellate Court judge candidates. This means, for the cost of less than one billable hour, lawyers were assured fairer courtrooms, presided over by judges who had not been influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by big campaign donors who may appear before them. But even if the public grants were to come totally from general funds, they would constitute a tiny portion of the North Carolina budget — not even 1/10th of 1%. Put another way, a penny per day, or $3.65 a year per adult, would create a fund big enough to cover the cost of all state races, including Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges, Governor, all Council of State and all 170 NC legislative races.
Is It Worth It?
VOE programs do more than promote democracy, they also cut down on the damage special interest legislation and tax loopholes can do to our state’s budget. Studies and investigations have proved that special interest tax breaks and legislation are costing our state’s budget more than a billion dollars each year. This loss of revenue is far more than what would be required to fund VOE programs for all of our statewide offices: Closing even one loophole would pay for the maximum cost of VOE in our state. The people of North Carolina would end up ahead financially while also playing a greater role in NC politics and our public policies.
What Are the Benefits of Voter-Owned Elections?
- VOE is a proven alternative to our existing electoral system. VOE is not a new idea, it is a system that has been shown to work in NC and in states as diverse as Arizona and Connecticut.
- VOE has widespread, bi-partisan public support. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, men and women, candidates of all races have all endorsed and used VOE as a fair and practical campaign financing system.
- VOE opens doors for hardworking candidates. If a candidate is not connected to wealthy donors or does not want to be beholden to large donors, they still have at least a shot at running for office under a VOE program. A VOE candidate still has to work hard and raise funds — but they do not have to accept large donations to have a chance at winning.
- VOE encourages accountability. When special interests can no longer buy elections, they become less important and elected officials pay more attention to what their constituents want. Why? In part because they have to if they hope to be re-elected.
- VOE strengthens democracy by reducing the perception that candidates primarily represent their donor interests. Actual corruption erodes democracy but perceived corruption can harm it as well, especially when people lose confidence in their government and accept corruption as “the way things are.” So long as we have an electoral system that orbits around big money, we are only encouraging cynicism and inaction by NC citizens without big money.
Can we ever eliminate corruption in government? Probably not.
But we don’t have to support a system that invites it!
What’s Ahead for VOE in NC?
North Carolina is part of a thriving national VOE movement. Statewide and local VOE programs now exist in seven states and NC’s U.S. Rep. Walter Jones is a co-sponsor of a Federal public campaign financing bill, the “Fair Elections Now Act”, for Congressional races. Meanwhile, on a state level, bills have been introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly to expand VOE to more Council of State agency races, to allow other local governments to adopt VOE programs and to expand VOE to pilot legislative races.
In North Carolina, programs are available at the state and local levels. Click on a link below for more on these VOE programs: