It’s socialism. It changes the way democracy can work. It’s a misuse of public funds during a recession. It’s the beginning of the end of big oil and pharmaceutical influence in government.

Depending on which Chapel Hill municipal election candidate you talk to, the town’s groundbreaking voter-owned-election program is a lot of things. Still, candidates agree, it’s new, it’s different and it’s an experiment.

How the VOE program in Chapel Hill will work

  • Participation in the program is optional.
  • Candidates can receive a public grant for a campaign, but only if they collect a threshold number of $5-to-$20 donations from Chapel Hill voters and abide by strict spending and fundraising limits.
  • Town Council candidates must raise at least 75 qualifying contributions, adding up to at least $750 but no more than $2,250. Mayoral candidates must raise at least 150 qualifying contributions, adding up to a minimum of $1,500 but no more than $4,500.
  • Candidates may also spend seed money: up to $750 for the town council and $1,500 for mayor.
  • The maximum public grant is $3,000 for town council candidates and $9,000 for mayoral candidates. Grant money that is unspent must be returned.
  • “Rescue funds” provide additional money to candidates facing high-spending opposition.
  • A special fund finances the grants. Money is allocated to the fund as part of the town budget (less than $30,000 a year) and from voluntary donations and candidate reimbursements.

Source: Democracy N.C.

It’s a simple, albeit controversial idea: The public should fund campaigns for viable candidates so everyone, not just those who can afford to bankroll their campaigns, has a fair shot at winning office.

Those council members who voted, 8-1, last year to establish the two-year pilot program used that logic when they approved it. Voter-owned elections will be used this year and in the 2011 municipal elections at a cost of $50,000 from the town’s general fund. Now eyes both local and statewide are eager to see how it shakes out.

“I think people are looking at it and are very curious about how it will work,” said Bob Hall, executive director for Democracy N.C, a campaign finance watchdog group. ” I think what will happen with the presence of a community doing it is that other communities will take it as something that they should weigh the pros and cons of as well.”

Hall says Chapel Hill, which joins Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque, N.M., in using the system, should make for an interesting case study. Other municipalities, including Cary, have discussed trying voter-owned elections, but Chapel Hill was the first to earn the required legislative approval.

Councilman Mark Kleinschimdt, one of two candidates this election accepting public funds, was one of the early advocates for the program and voted for it. In 2005, Kleinschmidt spent $4,288 on his campaign, according to the Orange County Board of Elections.

“The influence of money in campaigns, I believe from an outsider’s perspective, has damaged the political system in surrounding communities,” said Kleinschmidt, who’s running for mayor. “If [influence] happens in Cary, it’s going to happen here.”

So does that make the program a solution looking for a problem or a means of thwarting undue influence before it starts? Penny Rich, the other candidate who’s opted in, admits that she isn’t as worried about the influence of special interests because of the “character of local leaders,” but she doesn’t discount the possibility of such pressure in future elections. That’s why she supports the program.

The first candidate to file for the program in June, Rich said she was surprised that no one else in the council contest joined her. She’s already raised $870 in small amounts: 15 checks for $20, 52 for $10 and 10 contributions for $5, according the mid-year finance reports. That’s enough to earn her the promised public money.

“We’re in a downturn economy right now, but asking people for a $5 check was so comfortable,” said Rich, who spent $3,905 and raised $4,360 in a failed 2007 bid. “They kind of smiled at me and thought I was kidding.”

While critics assert that voter-owned elections waste money, Rich and Kleinschmidt counter that the program costs just 94 cents per citizen, adding that due to economic hard times, everyday citizens can’t afford to back campaigns.

Though the rest of the candidates have decided against accepting public funds, they differ widely in their reasoning. Two-term incumbent Ed Harrison supported voter-owned elections, but he isn’t taking public money.

“The program was being criticized as an incumbent protection program,” he said. “The best way that an incumbent who supported it can rebuke that characterization is to run without it.”

In 2005, Harrison spent $7,656 on his campaign.

Laurin Easthom, 2005’s top vote-earner, wants to debunk the incumbent argument. She supported to program in order to get fresh ideas from new candidates who could unseat her or her colleagues.

“Anything we can do that makes it easy for a lot of people to run is a good thing for democracy,” she said. “I’m not doing it because I don’t need to do it. The last time that I ran, I did not spend much more than what these voter-owned election candidates are going to get.” Easthom spent $3,819 to run her 2005 campaign.

Name recognition gives her a leg up now, but she says that she probably would have used public funds if they had been available when she ran as an unknown.

Before the program’s launch, a small group of critics, some of them with the financial resources to run expensive campaigns, assailed it.

Mayoral candidate Matt Czajkowski loaned himself $17,750 of the $20,000 he raised as part of his 2007 campaign for town council. Most candidates spend less than $10,000. He was the sole dissenter when the council voted to enact the pilot program.

Though Chapel Hill had moved to consider public financing before Czajkowski’s run, many have pointed to his spending as an example of why reform is needed.

The councilman says he could afford to fund his campaign and the amount he was willing to spend illustrates “how much he cares about the town.” He says his personal affluence doesn’t factor into his position on voter-owned elections.

“The reason I voted against it, and said so repeatedly, was because I didn’t believe that there was any evidence whatsoever that it would accomplish either of its two stated goals, curbing special interest influence and encouraging new candidates,” said Czajkowski, who calls it “taxpayer-subsidized elections.”

Supporters fear that voter-owned elections will attract fringe candidates who have no real intent of serving, Hall said. Yet that has not been the case in Chapel Hill.

While it’s true that no new candidates opted into the pilot program in its first year Kleinschimdt has been in office since 2001 and Rich ran in 2007it’s too early to evaluate its outcome.

In Portland, where a similar clean-election program is used, only two candidates opted in the first cycle. In recent elections, most candidates have opted in.

Mayoral hopeful Augustus Cho said he’s proud to be the first candidate to opt against voter-owned, or as he prefers, “government-owned elections.”

(The government does own elections, since it pays for the operations and labor, including the ballots, election offices and election officials.)

“In a democracy, voters have the right to support their candidate, including to support the candidate financially and not forcing them to support other candidates against their will,” said Cho.”My prediction is that the municipal election in Chapel Hill will be the end of voter-owned elections for philosophical and practical reasons.”

Cho raised $13,000about two-thirds of Czajkowski’s totalwhen he ran for U.S. Congress last year. However, almost half of Cho’s take $7,500 came from contributions of more than $200. Cho said he’s not focused on fundraising totals and will spend only enough on the mayoral campaign to get his message out.

That can be done cheaply, said Joyce Brown, who served three council terms from 1989 to 2001. She was able to win as an unknown with just $500. She thinks the price to run a campaign is shocking.

“I think something’s wrong and I’m glad that there’s at least an attempt to correct it. Even with campaign finance reform, people can spend a lot of money to get elected,” she said, adding that if she ran today she would opt in.

Aspiring mayoral candidate Kevin Wolff, who last fall spent $1,400 on an ad in The Chapel Hill News decrying voter-owned elections, did not return phone calls to the Indy. He loaned himself $2,000 to run for mayor in 2007 and raised another $200 from a family member.

There are those like Fred Black, a community volunteer and blogger, who favors campaign finance reform, just not this type. He said he can’t find a compelling reason for this program and has traded e-mails with councilmembers to voice his opposition.

“Some people think the reason we should be doing this, to ask the state for the authority to do this, is because it makes Chapel Hill unique and they like to appear cool,” Black said.

Jake Gellar-Goad, who attended public information sessions on the process, not only supports the spirit of voter-owned elections, but it also plays a significant part in who’ll get his vote.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who don’t opt in, but for me, as a voter, I am attracted to people who are using this program,” he said. “I think if either Mark or Penny wins, it’ll get new people involved because they’ll see it work.”

And while some candidates argue that Rich’s decision means she isn’t a good steward of public money, council challenger Matt Pohlman doesn’t see it that way.

“If someone feels like voter-owned elections is their issue, that’s an easy vote, she’s the only one putting her money where her mouth is,” he said. “I’d be surprised if anyone thought that was the critical issue, though. We waste money on a far larger magnitude in this town than on Penny Rich’s election.”

For more information, see the N.C. Board of Election’s presentation.

Town Council candidates’ views on voter-owned elections

Matt Pohlman: “I’m not sure I can get behind voter-owned elections. It frankly feels wrong for citizens who may not share my views to foot the bill in part for my campaign, and so I’m opting out.”

Jon DeHart: “I don’t like taxation without representation, spending money without accountability. … The concept is great. Applied on a local election, I don’t like it.”

Will Raymond: “If we’re going to have voter-owned elections, in terms of this experiment, we need to open this back up to public needs, to be an honest discussion of issues among already established groups in our town, and how it strengthens those powers and the power of incumbency. … Having said that, I pitched in $5 for Penny, and I’m glad that she’s able to deal with all the paperwork. Me, I didn’t elect to do it. I’m not like one of the people who voted for it and is not doing it. I was concerned with it prior to its adoption.”

James Merritt: “I just really didn’t want to use public funds. There’s a sacrifice you have to make.”