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Editorial: Election fund gains votes

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s retreat from an earlier avowal to accept public financing for his general-election campaign, should he win the nomination, is a disappointment, especially for a candidate who portrays himself as an agent of change determined to limit the sway of special interests and shun politics as usual in Washington.
But that’s what happens when a candidate discovers he has the Midas touch for fundraising. As of last month, the Obama campaign had more than 1 million individual contributors and was setting fund-raising records almost daily. Compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars Obama would be able to raise for a general election campaign, $85 million in public financing suddenly looks like chump change, even though the presumptive GOP-nominee, John McCain, has agreed to accept public dollars, provided his opponent does the same.
Although Obama’s about-face is disappointing, there’s some encouraging news on the public financing front in North Carolina. The state’s modest pilot program for public financing of three Council of State offices ó auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction ó has drawn the apparent participation of six of 11 candidates, and others who haven’t yet made a final decision may yet sign up.
The primary argument for public financing of elections is that it reduces the influence of special-interest money, but it also makes a statewide campaign feasible for potential candidates who either couldn’t afford to run for office otherwise or simply can’t stomach the nonstop fundraising that modern campaigns require. Noted Eddie Davis, a candidate for the public-instruction post, “it allows for regular, ordinary citizens to be involved … without having to raise millions of dollars.” (June Atkinson, the incumbent, also chose to accept public funding.)
The pilot program for these three statewide offices was almost dead on arrival in the state legislature last year. Four years ago, in 2004, the state began experimenting with public financing in statewide judicial races, financed primarily through voluntary check-offs on tax returns (which do not add to taxes due) and fees charged to attorneys. Although that financing program has won broad praise in the legal community and from candidates themselves, the extension of public financing to the three Council of State posts narrowly won approval in the N.C. House and Senate during last year’s legislative session. One year doesn’t offer conclusive evidence of the program’s success. Even so, it’s a vote of confidence that more than half of the declared candidates for these three posts have elected to go the public-financing route, and others may eventually make the same choice.
Public financing has helped change the tenor of statewide judicial races. It can do the same for other state and federal offices, but only if public-financing programs are embraced by candidates who believe there’s a better way ó and by voters who believe that they, not special interests, should be the ultimate owners of elections. Let’s hope the eventual presidential nominees set a similar example.

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