Scrapyard: Publicly Funded Elections

This session, the state Legislature created a pilot program in Hawaii County that allows County Council candidates to pay for all of their campaign costs with public money rather than private fundraising. (The state currently offers partial funding to candidates who agree to limit their total campaign spending.) Gov. Linda Lingle had threatened to veto the bill, but as of press time had not pulled the trigger. Does Hawaii need publicly funded elections?

Kory Payne

Community Organizer, Voter-owned Hawaii





The benefits of a comprehensive, public funding option are clear. Right now, because campaigns have become so expensive, candidates and legislators end up spending 50 percent to 80 percent of their time fundraising from private interests who are usually looking to profit from the law-making process. In the “pay-to-play” scenario of today’s elections, special interests often end up deciding what laws get passed and what laws get killed.

This Hawaii County pilot project is a step toward reforming that system, by giving candidates the option of running their campaign using public funds instead. There is already a partial public funding program in place throughout the state, but it has been underfunded and is increasingly unused. And because candidates are still required to raise supplemental private money from special interests, it doesn’t really solve the problem of influence. In order to really change the system, a full public funding program is necessary.

In 2005, AARP did a professional survey showing that 74 percent of Hawaii residents of voting age support a comprehensive full public funding option for candidates.

Arguments about the cost of such a program are moot at this point, because the Hawaii County pilot project is capped at $300,000, and is not permanent. There’s no automatic provision for statewide expansion—it’s going to play out over the next three election cycles, and we’ll then be able to evaluate the results.

The bottom line is that, when citizens have more access and accountability to the elections process, they are able to pass laws that are better for the economy, better for the environment, and better for taxpayers and consumers. Without a public funding option for elections, they’re paying for it by not paying for it.

Barbara Wong

Executive Director

State Campaign Spending Commission

The commission supports partial public financing, but questions whether the public is aware of and supportive of the cost of a comprehensive public funding program.  We have to be financially responsible, and offering full public funding for all 109 of Hawaii’s electoral races is costly. The budget for the pilot program in Hawaii County would be capped at $300,000 per election for 3 elections, but it’s intended as a test run for full public funding of all elective seats. You don’t test drive a car that you can’t afford to buy.

Voters may say they want public funding to keep candidates out of the hands of special interests. But voters may well reconsider when they’re told how much it’s going to cost. Similar programs in other states are costing millions of dollars. Arizona’s clean election budget, for example, is $40 million, and Connecticut’s clean election budget grew from $15 million in 2006 to a projected $45 million in 2008.

Hawaii’s larger contests will prove to be much more expensive than the County Council seats on the Big Island. Using the formula in this bill, two candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor and for each mayoral race would be eligible for $33 million in total funding for their primary and general campaigns, if you include equalizing funds. There is $5.4 million in the Hawaii election campaign fund.  Who will pay the difference?

The measures of success for this program are going to be hard to track. How do you measure whether elected officials are in the hands of special interests or not?

Rather than jumping into deep water, a better solution would be to incrementally increase the existing partial funding program, which offers candidates partial public funding in exchange for limiting their expenditures. The public would be in the driver’s seat and could increase the number of $2 state income tax check-offs to the Hawaii election campaign fund to provide more funding.  


After HONOLULU Magazine went to press, HB 661 passed without a signature from Gov. Linda Lingle, giving Hawai‘i County the go-ahead to create a comprehensive public funding pilot project.