With the primary elections behind us, forums and sign waving for candidates for the November elections are already underway.

And many of us in the public are cringing at the expectation of being inundated by advertising for or against candidates, sponsored not by the candidates but by funds provided to Super PACs from secret donors operating “independently” of the candidates. (Remember all the negative ads in the 2010 Honolulu mayor’s race?)

The Supreme Court 2010 rulings in Citizen’s United vs. the FEC and other cases opened the floodgates of money attempting to influence elections and gain influence with the politicians who are elected.

Citizens United graphic - plane with money (color)

The Supreme Court’s decision on the Citizens United case open the door to virtually limitless campaign donations by funding groups as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

Flickr: www.flickr.com: DonkeyHotey

This year, as Republicans work to hold the U.S. House of Representatives and gain control of the Senate, as well as capture as many governorships as possible, and as Democrats are equally committed to preventing this, we may expect to see a much greater influx of money into Hawaii elections than we have previously seen.

Is there no way to stop this?

Perhaps there is. In 2012, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, pioneered what has come to be called “The People’s Pledge.” They agreed to make charitable donations from their campaign funds equal to half of any money spent for advertising on their behalf by “independent” outside groups. Their donation would be made to a charity chosen by the opposing candidate.

Wouldn’t it be better for us to be able to listen to the candidates themselves rather than to ads that are designed to confuse us?

It worked! This agreement led to Super PACs closing their checkbooks and departing— outside funding decreased by 93 percent. The groups were simply unwilling to invest in ads they knew would be offset by major withdrawals from their preferred candidates’ treasuries. Outside groups did not purchase a single television ad in Massachusetts that year!

With the big money groups out of the picture, Brown and Warren fueled their campaigns with modest gifts from individual donors and concentrated their attention on issues important to them and to Massachusetts voters.

Let’s replicate that outcome in Hawaii this year. Nationally, Common Cause and Public Citizen are encouraging other states to take the pledge to their candidates in competitive races (see peoplespledge2014.org), and members of the Hawaii chapters have agreed to do so.

Over the next week, we will continue to contact the major candidates in the races for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House to ask that they agree to work with their opponents to tailor the pledge to their own specifications. We will be publicizing candidates’ responses.

Wouldn’t it be better for us to be able to listen to the candidates themselves rather than to ads that are designed to confuse us? Wouldn’t it be better for the candidates to be able to tailor their own campaigns, rather than hoping that outside groups would represent them appropriately?

It is in everyone’s interest for candidates to sign these pledges. If implemented, they will very directly reduce the scourge of big money’s influence on politics as well as help return elections to a conversation between candidates and voters.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

About the Author

  • Barbara Polk
    Barbara Polk has been a board member of Common Cause Hawaii for seven years and is currently the interim chair. She has testified on good government issues at the state legislature and drafted a version of the "transparency for Super PACs bill" that will take effect after the November 2014 election.

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