In elections, as in geography, North Carolina is located between Maine and Florida. We know now, thanks to Bush vs. Gore, that Florida is election hell. We’re not Florida, thank heavens. But we’re not as heavenly as Maine either.

What Maine has that North Carolina doesn’t is a “clean-elections” law passed by the voters in a referendum and used for the first time last fall. Under the law, candidates for state offices can choose to run using a set amount of public money and nothing else, or they can take the old-fashioned route using private contributions and unlimited spending. How did public funding go in Maine? “I can’t tell you what a liberating experience it was,” exults Tina Baker, a three-term member of the Maine House of Representatives who visited Raleigh last week.

Baker was one of 116 candidates for the Senate or House who chose the public-funding option, and one of 62 who won that way, which means–bottom line–that one-third of the members of the Maine legislature owe their seats to nobody but the voters, she says. Baker grew up in Gastonia, by the way, and earned a master’s degree from Duke four decades ago. She likens the fight for this kind of campaign-finance reform in state legislatures around the country to the civil rights struggles she witnessed in Durham in the ’60s.

“North Carolina was a leader then, and it will be a leader again,” Baker told a group of this state’s reform advocates on Wednesday.

With that, she and two of her Maine colleagues joined the reformers as they roamed the halls of the General Assembly looking for Tar Heel legislators who might be persuaded to vote for this state’s clean-elections bill–or as it’s now being called in North Carolina, the Voter-Owned Elections Act, sponsored by Sen. Wib Gulley, a Durham Democrat. (See “Gulley’s Bill.”)

Baker’s first stop was instructive: Sen. James Forrester, a Republican who represents her native Gaston County. They’re about the same age, and right off, they were swappin’ y’alls and mountain talk like old friends. Soon Baker had Forrester’s attention on the issue at hand. She won her first two terms in the Maine House with private contributions, of course, and they were both squeakers, she told him. She actually liked raising money, because it was one way of connecting with constituents. But since Maine voters had approved the public-funding law, she decided it was just the right thing to do.

“I took a deep breath,” she said, “and pretty soon I realized, I wasn’t having to spend my time raising money. … I could spend all my time concentrating on the issues.”

That good feeling of liberation, she said, somehow translated to the voters. Despite running against a tough opponent, she was rewarded with her first clear victory.

Forrester listened politely and promised to consider supporting the voter-owned bill. But the whole discussion seemed to puzzle him a bit since frankly, he said, he’d never had an opponent in any of his four campaigns. Not a Democrat, anyway. Wait a minute, that was wrong, he said, a Democrat did run one of those years, but got less than 25 percent of the vote. Forrester’s only serious competition was in the Republican primary the first time he ran.

Which brings us to something North Carolina has that Maine apparently doesn’t: legislative gerrymandering. For example: The Senate districts in Gaston County are drawn so that Forrester has an absolutely safe Republican seat, which also lets a Democrat, in the person of Sen. David Hoyle, get elected in the neighboring district.

Such line-drawing techniques mean that a lot of legislators in North Carolina get elected with only token opposition or none at all. They don’t have to raise a lot of money for their own campaigns. Why would they vote to make public funds available and encourage someone to run against them?

And then there’s the flip side, encountered in the office of Sen. A. B. Swindell, a Nash County Democrat. Swindell is a first-termer, but he’s no political rookie. His grandfather was in the legislature, and he worked as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Tim Valentine for years before Valentine retired.

Swindell spent almost $300,000 winning his seat in one of the few districts that is closely divided. Voter apathy is the problem, he says, and he had to spend heavily on mailings “to get my message out.” He gestured to a framed campaign brochure on the wall that touted his support for Hurricane Floyd relief, and talked about the right-wing Republicans in his district going back to the founders of the John Birch Society in Rocky Mount. Then he reached in his desk and pulled out a dog-eared copy of a 1894 book, Civil Government, used back then to teach the boys and girls in school what good citizenship was all about.

Civics is neglected in the schools today, Swindell thinks, and in an era of MTV and transient populations, lots of people have no idea who’s running for office and need a lot of prodding from candidates to get them to the polls. One other thing, too, Swindell said: “I know my place as a first-termer.”

Which means simply, he won’t speak out on election-reform issues as long as the Democratic leadership in Raleigh is silent on them. Because without the party leaders, there’s no way he’d have been able to raise $300,000.

In short, then, public funding of campaigns doesn’t appeal to legislators who don’t spend a lot of money, and it doesn’t appeal to those who do.

Back to Rep. Baker. She couldn’t get over how different the North Carolina and Maine legislatures look. In Raleigh’s spacious legislature, every member has an office, and there’s plenty of room for mingling–and persuading–in the corridors. In Maine’s tiny Capitol, only the leaders have offices, and lobbyists hang outside the chambers–in the lobby. As a result, everything is more hurried.

“It’s so much more like a business here,” Baker remarked. “I can see why they wouldn’t all jump to give up their jobs.”

The moral of our story: North Carolina is a long way from Maine, even if we are well above Florida.

Oh, yes, Florida. We have some problems with our voting procedures, State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett acknowledges, but nothing like that mess.

Two fundamental differences: Florida elections are controlled by county boards, with only the loosest sort of oversight from state officials; consequently, there’s a lack of established standards for voting and for counting votes.

North Carolina, by contrast, has given the Board of Elections quasi-judicial powers, meaning it sets the rules for county boards to follow and settles disputes. In his eight years as director, Bartlett says, the board has ordered about two dozen new elections and overseen hundreds of recounts without serious controversy because its rules are clear. “Did you know we coined the term ‘pregnant chad’?” he asks. That was in a 1986 congressional election decided by 72 votes after a hand recount. The Board ruled: Count the hanging chads, but not the pregnant ones … unless there’s evidence that the voter was physically disabled, and failed to punch any chads through.

So North Carolina has no big election problems? Wrong, Bartlett says. We have an $80 million problem–old election machines.

Few counties still use punch-cards, but the optical scanners used in most counties–Wake County, for instance–are “not as accurate as we would like them to be,” Bartlett says. Dust, moisture, the wrong ink on the ballots, ballots cut to the wrong size, paper jams, all can result in uncounted or miscounted votes. The answer: Kiosk-style machines that register votes by touch. They’re much more accurate. But putting them in place all over the state would cost at least $80 million, and given the state’s current fiscal woes, the appetite for spending the money is slim.

“Everybody was for reforming things until two months ago,” Bartlett says. “Now. …”

On the other hand, North Carolina is making it easier to vote with a policy of “no excuses” absentee ballots (you don’t have to explain why Election Tuesday might be inconvenient) and satellite voting locations open during the three weeks before Election Day. Last year almost 400,000 voters went to one of the 151 satellite places–usually the county board of elections itself and, in the larger counties, one or two other spots–and another 60,000 mailed in absentee ballots.

As a result, the total vote in the state went over 3 million for the first time, Bartlett says.

With money in short supply, reformers now are working to expand the hours of the satellite voting stations. Also, Rep. Paul Luebke, another Durham Democrat, is sponsoring a bill to allow same-day voter registration: You walk into a polling place with a driver’s license or other “verifiable” identification, register and vote. Six states allow it, Luebke says. All report higher voting rates and no problems with fraud.

Reformers’ eyes, though, remain on the money. The 2000 elections in North Carolina were a study in big-bucks politics and gerrymandering, with soft-money loopholes and a ballot-access scandal thrown in for good measure (where was Ralph Nader on the ballot, anyway?). In sum, if it was easier to vote, there was less to vote for, especially in legislative campaigns. Of the 170 Senate and House winners, 60 had no major-party opponent, only a Libertarian or Reform Party candidate; 45 had no opponent at all.

Yet total spending on legislative campaigns was over $19 million, up from just $5 million eight years ago; 25 candidates raised $200,000 or more to run for a seat, and 21 of them–including Sen. Swindell–were Democrats.

The legislative spending is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Board of Elections data, total reported spending on campaigns for Governor, Lt. Governor, and the Council of State offices (Treasurer, Auditor, etc.) was $40 million. Statewide the reported political spending (not all of it is reported since the law exempts small contributions and expenditures) totaled almost $150 million.

The driving force in the escalating campaign wars is fundraising by the parties, more than by individual candidates. Democratic and Republican committees raised $41 million in the 1999-2000 cycle, according to the board. State political action committees accounted for another $8 million. Party leaders who raise the money can decide which candidates need help, which don’t–usually because they’re in safely gerrymandered districts–and which might need help but won’t be getting it because they’ve failed to sufficiently toe the party line.

Or so the members fear.

Some of the parties’ money arrived via soft-money loopholes. North Carolina law limits individual and PAC contributions to $8,000 per candidate per election ($4,000 each for the primary and general elections) and bans direct giving by corporations and unions. Individuals and PACs are allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to state party organizations, however, and federal law allows the national party organizations to take unlimited “soft money” sums from all sources and give it to state parties or candidates.

Democracy South, the Chapel Hill-based reform group, tracked $9 million in soft money that went from North Carolina sources to Washington in 1999-2000, and similar amounts that came back–but, of course, it’s hard to prove it was the same money, hence the term loophole. Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot got $2.1 million for his campaign this way. Democrats limited their use of the loophole to “party building,” meaning–again–that party leaders controlled it, not candidates.

The reformers–they include the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the N.C. Center for Voter Education, and allied progressive groups–would like to ban soft money, period, says Democracy South researcher Bob Hall, as Connecticut recently did. But Republicans are opposed, and so is the Democratic leadership in the Senate.

The Senate Democratic leaders are backing a bill, also sponsored by Sen. Gulley, that would close the loophole for individual candidates but leave it open for party committees.

All the more reason, says Hall, why the Voter-Owned Elections Act is needed. It may be impossible to keep big-money contributors from insinuating themselves into state campaigns; the only answer is to offer candidates the option to turn it down and use public funds instead, like Maine and three other states (Arizona, Vermont and Massachusetts) do or soon will do.

As the reformers worked the legislative hallways, we tagged along. Some observations:

The Republicans hold the key to public campaign financing. Unless they get behind it, it’s not going anywhere.

The Voter-Owned Election Act, introduced by Democrat Gulley, has 16 other Democratic sponsors and four Republican sponsors, almost a majority in the 50-member Senate. But it’s going nowhere fast.

So it was fascinating to listen to Sen. Patrick Ballentine (R-New Hanover) the GOP minority leader in the Senate, as he talked with four constituents who’d surrounded him in the halls. Ballentine knows, better than anyone, that Democratic candidates for the Senate outspent his Republican team by 4-to-1 last fall, a big reason why the Dems hold a 35-15 margin today.

So why, Ballentine was asked, with his GOP side so outnumbered and outspent, wouldn’t they jump at the chance to champion reform, get behind public financing of campaigns and flush out the Democrats who say they’re for it but never let it get out of committee? If he came forward with 15 Republican votes, wouldn’t the 17 Democrats who say they’re for the Gulley be forced to pass it? “Well, we could try that,” Ballentine allowed, scratching his chin. “But on the motion to bring it up, it would probably be a party-line vote” that the Democrats would band together to defeat.

But he was thinking about it.

In Washington, the federal reform bill known as McCain-Feingold passed the Senate this year because Sen. John McCain, a Republican, joined forces with Democratic reformers led by Sen. Russell Feingold.

But in Raleigh, there’s no McCain on the Republican side, so Gulley, the Feingold of the legislature, gets nowhere year after year.

Here’s a thought: Start small–with the judges.

Sen. Allen Wellons, a Johnston County Democrat, has been a sponsor of Gulley’s bills before. But this year, he’s going to introduce his own bill. Instead of trying to make all state elections “voter-owned,” his will be limited to candidates for state Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals.

“I think you have to start somewhere,” Wellons says, “and to me, judges are the priority. … I really hate to see judges asking lawyers to contribute money to their campaigns, but as it is, lawyers are the only ones who are going to be interested in them.”

Wellons thinks voters need a demonstration of how public financing works before they’ll be ready to use it in every statewide campaign. Actually, that thought has occurred to Gulley, too. So his bill now calls for phasing in elections: In 2004, Council of State offices in 2006, all legislative offices; and in 2008, Governor and Lt. Governor.

Again, only the Democrats and the Republicans are in favor of gerrymandering.

Everyone else is against it. Of course, you have to define your terms. “I’m against gerrymandering too,” says Sen. Brad Miller, the Raleigh Democrat who will head the Senate committee that works on redrawing district lines using 2000 census data.

In its most pernicious form, gerrymandering is what one party does to the other if it controls the line-drawing process. Democrats, say, would pack as many Republican voters as possible into as few districts as possible, so that the rest of the districts could be won by Democrats.

That probably won’t happen in North Carolina this year because the Democrats’ margin in the House is so small–just 62-58–that Speaker Jim Black was forced to give the Republicans equal power over the redistricting committee in order to keep his gavel. What is likely to happen: Republican and Democratic incumbents will trade off so that each of their own seats is as safe as possible.

Then, as Ballentine said, “the money follows the power.” That is, contributors will give to the candidate they know in advance will win.

One answer to gerrymandering would be to take the line-drawing power away from legislators and give it to an independent, nonpartisan commission. That’s what a bill sponsored by Sen. Hamilton Horton, R-Winston Salem, would do. Its chances: zero.

The Common Cause solution: Proportional Representation.

N.C. Common Cause board member Lee Mortimer of Durham, a longtime exponent of proportional representation, proposes that the 120 House seats be put into 40 three-member districts and the Senate’s 50 seats into 16 three-member districts and one two-member district.

But instead of each voter casting three votes, as they do now in the handful of districts that have three seats (Durham’s district, for example), they would get one vote only.

The point, Mortimer says, would be to make gerrymandering all but impossible. In virtually every district, the result would be two legislators from one party and one from the other party–meaning that every Democratic voter, and every Republican, would be represented in the House and Senate.

Moreover, minority representation would increase, Mortimer says. Right now, though the state’s non-white population is almost 30 percent, just 15 percent of legislative seats–seven Senate seats and 16 in the House–are held by minority legislators. Single-member districts tend to “waste” minority votes, he thinks, in an effort to guarantee a minimum level of minority representation. Republicans like that, because the more black voters are segregated into one district, the more likely the surrounding “white” districts will be to vote Republican.

Help for the Green Party? Over Ralph Nader’s dead body.

Perhaps the most outrageous thing about the 2000 election in North Carolina was that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader couldn’t get on the ballot. The reason: The state’s draconian petition requirements for third parties. State law requires them to submit the signatures of more than 50,000 voters–2 percent of the electorate–by May 30. Nader, who started late, missed the deadline.

Gulley asked a legislative study commission to cut the requirement in half, to 1 percent, which satisfied N.C. Greens Chair Doug Stuber. But the commission recommended 1.5 percent and “even that is in deep trouble and going nowhere” in the current session, Stuber says. He thinks the commission’s recommended date change–to July 30–has a good chance of passage, however. EndBlock