Thursday, March 6, 2014 —
RALEIGH – A new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics underscores how successful North Carolina’s system of judicial public financing was when it was available. Yet despite the program’s success, it was eliminated as part of the massive election overhaul law passed by the legislature in 2013.
Judicial public financing was first available for N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals candidates in 2004. The voluntary program allowed candidates the option to participate in public financing, but only after raising qualifying funds from at least 350 North Carolina voters in amounts less than $500. Once candidates satisfied those qualifying requirements, they were then eligible to receive a public grant from the state to fund their campaign, provided they also adhered to strict spending limits.
The program was designed to limit the influence of special interest and private money in our judicial elections. It was an acknowledgement that candidates for the judiciary should be treated differently than normal politicians and it was a way to alleviate any perceived biases on the bench toward large campaign contributors. According to the new report, it was extremely successful.
The report shows that private donations equaled 77 percent of all contributions to Supreme Court candidates in the 2000 and 2002 elections before public financing was available. That number dropped to 40 percent while the program was in effect from 2004-2012.
In addition, the report also highlights that before the program went into effect political parties and candidate committees comprised 9 percent of contributions, which plummeted to less than 1 percent when public financing was available and judicial races became nonpartisan.
Public financing was not only effective, but extremely popular as well, as shown by 75 percent of all Supreme Court candidates participating in the program between 2004 and 2012. In 2012, all eight candidates eligible for the program chose to participate.
Interestingly, the report also finds that no privately financed candidate beat a publicly financed candidate in a head-to-head election. In fact, candidates who chose to participate in the program raised nearly twice as much as candidates who opted not to seek public funding.
And finally, the public financing program also led to more monetarily competitive races for the Supreme Court. According to the report, only 25 percent of races were monetarily competitive prior to the implementation of public financing, but that number rose to 78 percent while public financing was in effect.
In the end, the program’s overwhelming popularity and success were not enough to save it from the General Assembly’s chopping block. Now, judicial elections are going to look much different than they have since 2004.
This year will be the first case study for judicial elections without the program and the lack of judicial public financing could have a major impact. There are seven statewide judicial races on the ballot in 2014, including four for the seven-member Supreme Court. How those candidates raise money and from what sources will be an important narrative during the elections.
Preserving the integrity and impartiality of the courts is essential to ensuring trust in our government. And, as the report shows, public financing was clearly a valuable tool in that effort.
Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education and a contributor to TheVoterUpdate.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com.