The Connecticut Green Party has voted to sue over provisions in the new campaign finance reform bill which set what they, in a Thursday press release, call “discriminatory signature petition drive requirements” for third parties to qualify for public financing. Who can blame them? What once seemed like a godsend for the Greens and other third parties is turning into a nightmare.
Here’s the mountain the Greens are staring up: To place a publicly-financed candidate for governor on the ballot in 2010, Greens would have to collect 200,000 signatures above and beyond the initial requirement. There’s an old fairy tale about a young hero who is commanded to pick up the spilled contents of a big sack of grain before the sun rises, or suffer the ax. He is lucky enough to be helped by an army of ants, whose hill he was nice enough not to ride his horse over earlier in the story. The Greens here are like the poor sot with the field full of spilled grain, but without the assistance of grateful insects. Their task actually is impossible.
They feel betrayed, and for good reason. The Greens were way out in front of campaign finance reform, advocating public financing of elections and other reforms long before the Rowland scandal forced the rest of us to take a long look at how campaigns are funded. In 2002 I worked on the campaign of a Green state rep. candidate whose signature idea was campaign finance reform. I stood out in the cold November night, calling to passing voters, “Vote Green! Campaign finance reform!” Then, no one was interested. That was the night John Rowland was re-elected.
Now, when public financing has finally become a reality, the Greens want what they consider to be their fair share. They stood out in the cold for years, years, waiting for the rest of us to wise up. This is how we reward them for their foresight?
Public money would save them. This is a party that rarely raises more than a few thousand dollars per year. They won’t take corporate or PAC money, relying on individual donors. Unlike Governor Rell, who has similarly crippled her fundraising, they aren’t successful. Even party members rarely contribute.
Public money would vindicate them. They imagine a Green candidate on the same stage as two major party candidates, explaining patiently and passionately the core beliefs of the party. They see television commercials, radio advertisements, lawn signs. They can almost touch the power they secretly desire. Finally, they think, people would listen, and everyone else would realize how wrong they’d been all along.
Except they wouldn’t. Change wouldn’t come, after all, and the Greens would still be left out in the cold. The fantasy, for such it is, ends at 10%. In a perfect election year, with weak major party candidates, the Greens could expect at most that lonely tenth of the vote. Even 10% is stretching it. The only difference would be that the state had just spent a ton of money financing a candidate who never had a chance.
The Greens are considering running activist Cliff Thornton for governor next year. He won’t be elected. He knows this. So why run? According to a Green Party press release, Thornton says he wants to push issues other candidates won’t talk about, like reforming drug laws. Should taxpayers spend a million dollars on issue ads for a candidate who will poll, at most, 5%?
The new law says that if he can convince 200,000 more people to sign their names to a petition, then we should. Greens say that’s impossible. What’s left unsaid is that no way are there that many people who care enough about the Greens to sign. There aren’t 200,000 people in Connecticut who want to spend taxpayer money financing a tilt at a windmill. That’s why the threshold was put in there in the first place—not to silence third parties, but to save the state from an expensive plague of them. Right?
What are we funding, here? Democracy? Choice? Debate? A massive anti-corruption measure? The answer matters. Public financing wasn’t designed to boost or even include third parties, but to save the two major parties from some of their own worst instincts. That’s it. Any other notions are secondary.
Next year, maybe the Greens will get closer to that seat at the table. Maybe the third party threshold will drop a little, although it won’t—and probably shouldn’t—disappear completely. A system that would grant them increasing amounts of money for reaching successive, more easily gained thresholds might be a workable compromise. 100,000 signatures gets you half what the major candidates do, for example. 50,000 gets you a quarter. It could work. We could move beyond just corralling corruption into funding democratic discourse. We may find that third parties have a lot to contribute to the discussion, once we can finally hear them.
For now, though, they’re still out in the cold, shouting prophecies at the wind.