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Phipps flips and other campaign reform tips

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There was a time early in our national history when people brought their own ballots to the polling place. It was your vote, why not? Besides, the government wasn't going to print ballots at public expense when the private sector could handle that job so nicely.

But soon the parties were printing up ballots, and marking them, too, and each party's ballot was distinctive enough that the Whig boss would know if you'd taken his but were turning in a Democratic sheet instead. That struck the first wave of campaign reformers--circa the mid-19th century--as counterproductive to the emerging democratic idea that a person might want to "split a ticket" and, in any event, he had a right to keep his voting habits a secret.

So printing ballots became a government function, and later, voting machines to tally them and election officials to watch that the tallies were accurate. The goal was a "fair" election system, which, as the Florida 2000 vote so stunningly demonstrated, is still a ways off.

And last week, when state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps resigned in disgrace, we were reminded again that our electoral system gets better the more public it is, and starts to stink when it's jobbed out for money.

Phipps is almost certain to be indicted, and her closest aides already have been. The indictments say they took campaign cash in shoeboxes and tried to hide the peas, carny-style, in false campaign finance reports to the state Board of Elections. Oh, and it says they lied about it.

U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney, who's on Phipps' case, says she put the State Fair up for auction, which if true is illegal, but the saddest thing about Phipps is how stupidly she ran her campaign, because if she'd done things the old-fashioned way, they would've smelled just as bad but would have been legal. Or maybe that's the saddest thing.

Phipps got elected in 2000 by spending over $1 million (against a Republican opponent who spent $22,000), half of which she "loaned" herself by mortgaging the farm. Literally. She then entertained rival carnival companies for the State Fair, which should have been a good thing (Strates Shows had had the contract for 53 years, courtesy of the "Sodfather," Jim Graham), except as $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 and $4,000 checks floated in from concessionaires connected to the bidders, she opened up her purse and kept 'em.

No, not in her campaign till. She kept 'em to pay back that half-million loan to herself.

And folks, not a thing illegal about that, as long as nobody could say--and nobody could--that she gave the fair contract to the company that gave her money. They ALL gave her money, and Strates, on the face of it, according to our friends at Democracy North Carolina, was the high bidder with $150,000. It's just that one idiot connected to Amusements of America, the company she picked, was giving big wads of cash and writing checks over the "legal" $4,000 limit to intermediaries, instead of doing what Strates had always done--get the concession operators to kick in and pay them back later with smaller fees on their "joints."

Or charge more to the public.

And that is the point. Privatizing our elections doesn't save money, it costs us big-time. Special-interest contributors supply the millions for campaigns, and pretty soon us taxpayers are insuring their nuclear plants against liability, which saves them (and costs us) billions.

Today, if you're reading this on Wednesday, Democracy N.C. and the rest of the campaign reform gang are at over at the General Assembly trying to get its members to grasp the obvious lessons of the Phipps scandal and embrace their favored solution, "voter-owned" elections.

Voter-owned is a better way of putting it than the old "public financing," which implied that you and I would be paying for the trashy TV commercials we're forced to endure come election season--and for both candidates we like and don't like. Under voter-owned, candidates with enough petition signatures could tap a public campaign fund as long as they agree to stop taking private contributions and abide by a spending cap.

Another way would be to separate the campaign message from the means of delivering it. Just as we now supply the ballots and the voting machines, we could supply television and radio broadcast time, postage for mailings, a public Web site for every candidate who "qualifies."

Qualifies how? Well, signatures are one way, but journalist William Greider had a great suggestion a few years ago: Give every voter, say, $100 to contribute to the candidate(s) of their choice. That would put the poor on an equal footing with the rich (sorry, Tom DeLay) and give everybody a stake--literally--in every election.

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Name that reformer: Quick, there is one candidate in the current field for governor who's in favor of voter-owned election financing. No, not Gov. Easley. He likes the tried-and-true get-it-from-the-concrete-pavers method. The reform candidate, if he does it right, is Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballentine, the Wilmington Republican, who outed the Democratic opposition to reform last term by getting all 15 (at the time) GOP members to sign on to the bill. You go, Patrick. EndBlock

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