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March 2010 – The Success of North Carolina’s Judicial Campaign Reform Program

Data Highlight:

NC’s Model Program of Judicial Public Financing

The success of North Carolina’s judicial campaign reform program stands in sharp contrast to the stream of negative news about campaign finance abuses and pay-to-play politics. Consider these recent newsworthy events, which deserve attention even in the midst of the fascination with “gotcha” stories:

  • This is the first year since the state’s judicial public financing program began in 2004 that 100% of the appellate court candidates have signed up to participate in the program. All 11 of the candidates in 4 contested races have now filed their “declaration of intent.” They must abide by strict fundraising and spending limits and raise at least 350 small qualifying contributions from registered voters before becoming eligible for any public campaign money. A 12th candidate, Appeals Court Judge Sanford Steelman Jr., also signed up early, but since he faces no opposition, he will not receive any public funds.
  • Beginning this week, the Judicial Voter Guide published by the State Board of Elections will be appearing in mailboxes across the state, starting in the western counties. The Guide will be mailed to more than four million households, paid for by the Public Campaign Fund. It includes profiles of the seven candidates vying for the two Court of Appeals seats involved in the primary election, as well as information about the appellate courts, the Public Campaign Fund, voter registration, early voting, and “10 ways your right to vote is protected.” It is also on the State Board’s website.
  • Also this week, Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia signed into law that state’s pilot judicial public financing program, scheduled for the 2012 election. West Virginia becomes the third state to adopt a judicial public financing program modeled on North Carolina’s pioneering program. Wisconsin enacted its law in 2009 and New Mexico passed its in 2007.
  • In the 2004, 2006 and 2008 general elections in North Carolina, a total of 31 of the 40 (78%) candidates in contested appellate court races qualified for campaign support from the Public Campaign Fund. The program is being successfully used by incumbents and challengers, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, men and women. It has also successfully reduced the reliance of candidates on special-interest donations tied to parties involved in litigation. See an analysis of the program by clicking here.
  • The 100% participation rate in 2010 is especially noteworthy after the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to allow corporations to finance independent campaigns for or against candidates, which some commentators suggested could scare candidates away from voluntarily accepting the fundraising limits that go with public campaign support.
  • We’re also now in tax season: A $3 check-off on the NC income-tax form provides a little over half of the funds for the judicial program, about $1.1 million a year. Checking YES does not change a person’s tax bill or refund; it just sends $3 to the Public Campaign Fund from taxes the person is paying anyway. The other major source of money for the Public Campaign Fund is a $50 fee that attorneys pay each year, which generates about $1 million a year.
  • The success of the judicial reform program provides a model for addressing problems of special-interest influences and pay-to-play politics affecting other offices in North Carolina. It was used as the framework for the public financing program for three NC Council of State offices that began in 2008. Legislation to expand that program is now in the NC General Assembly (S-20, H-586), ready for action in the session beginning in May.