In 2004, North Carolina implemented the nation’s first “Clean Elections” or “Voter-Owned Elections” program for statewide judicial candidates. The N.C. Public Campaign Fund is an alternative to the traditional campaign method of judges raising money from the attorneys and business interests who appear in their courts.
The program replaces this conflict of interest-laden system with one that allows candidates to receive a public campaign grant in exchange for accepting strict spending and fundraising limits. National experts have applauded the “strong and effective” program, and it is viewed as a model by other states seeking to address the corrosive impact of the money chase in their judicial elections.
Candidates for the NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals can qualify for a substantial campaign grant from the Public Campaign Fund if they abide by spending limits.and raise a specified number of small donations from NC voters. A qualified candidate can receive additional funds if a privately financed challenger or outside group exceeds the spending limit.
Our analysis of the program’s success from 2004 to 2010 shows that the Public Campaign Fund is being used by Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers, blacks and whites, men and women.
In fact, a majority of our state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals members are now Voter-Owned participants, meaning they received most of their campaign money from thousands of small donors and the public instead of from the lawyers who argue cases before their courts. As another report demonstrates, the percent of funds in appellate races supplied by attorneys and special-interest groups has plummeted from 73% of the donations in the election before the program began to 14% after it started.
The N.C. Public Campaign Fund also pays for a Voter Guide with information about the courts and candidates. Four million copies are mailed to households across the state before elections — an important service since statewide judicial candidates are often unknown to the public at large and people need a way to review their qualifications for these important high court seats.
A distinguished bipartisan panel oversees the program with the State Board of Elections. It is headed by Willis Whichard, former judge and retired Dean of the Campbell University Law School.
The program won’t work unless hundreds of thousands of taxpayers show their support by choosing “Yes” on a check-off box on their state income tax form. Checking this box does not change your tax bill or tax refund in any way; it just transfers $3 into the Public Campaign Fund from what you pay anyway.
A little over half of the funds needed for the judicial public financing program and Voter Guide come from the voluntary check-off. The other funds come from a $50 surcharge on the annual fee that attorneys pay to the N.C. State Bar.