Government Officials Admit Electoral Reform Needs Work
By Melissa B. Gonzalez Valentin
March 29, 2002
Despite being advocates of the proposed electoral reform that seeks to fund political campaigns with public money as a means to fend off corruption, House Legal Advisor Luis Vega and Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Sen. Fernando Martin admitted that the Clean Money Law is not foolproof.
"No law is 100% immune to violations," Vega told WOW News.
However, he was quick to note its potential.
"What we need to do is to make it as strict as possible in regards to punishment, thus hindering attempts to violate it," explained Vega, who believes that flouting the peoples trust and the limits established by law should be subjected to much stricter punishments than the ones that currently exist.
Right now, the Electoral Law provides for the criminal prosecution of violators, as well as for fines. However, criminal infractions prescribe within six months, which is the time it normally takes to audit the finances of a given party prior to filing any charges. As for the fines, political parties may be ordered to return double the amount of money used or obtained in excess for their campaigns, according to the State Elections Commission (SEC).
Vega and Martin defended the proposed bill from its detractors who have criticized it for being contradictory and potentially violating to the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and of free association.
For example, one of the possible contradictions is that governmentally financed campaigns may turn political candidates into representatives of the government as an institution and not of the voters as a people.
Furthermore, it raises the question of whether it is fair for all candidates to have equal financing for their campaign, when they are not equally favored by the people.
In this sense, Vega believes that those mostly favored by the voting population are not necessarily the ones with greater fundraising means, and that those favored by powerful contributors have better chances of carrying out a campaign that can successfully reach voters and possibilities of winning, which is precisely what the Electoral Law tries to avoid as amended in 2000.
"The experience weve recently seen is that the great capacity for fundraising of a candidate is not equal to the support of the electorate," said Vega, referring to recent scandals such as the one involving former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo who plead guilty to charges of misappropriating federal funds that benefited the coffers of the New Progressive Party.
For his part, Martin rejected that the public financing of campaigns is a way for the government to meddle in the peoples right to choose their representative.
"Once the candidates qualify for the funds, the law does not regulate and could not regulate the content of the messages in a campaign. It would be wrong if the law said the candidates could not speak badly of the government," Martin noted.
In 2000, the Electoral Law was amended to provide equal financing of political advertising campaigns for gubernatorial candidates with public funds that amount to $3 million each. However, private funding is still allowed without limits for the rest of the candidates running for mayor or for legislator.
Martin said the proposed reform eliminates this possibility by setting limits to the amounts that they are able to collect if they decide not to accept government funding.
Furthermore, Martin said had this restriction existed in 2000, the corruption schemes involving allegations that the Popular Democratic Party had used legislative and mayoral candidates to pay for advertising ads that favored the gubernatorial candidate would not take place.
However, the so-called Political Action Committees (PACs), which are independent organizations that raise money to fund a candidates political campaign, still represent a loophole even in the proposed electoral reform, as they are allowed and could find a way to get around the fundraising limits.
Martin said his suggestion is that the committees be completely eliminated in the law and in the eventuality that the court may find this disposition unconstitutional, then have them include that for every dollar exceeding the limit imposed by law, the government will pair it for the rest of the candidates. Martin believes this would discourage the private sector from giving donations to political parties, as they would not be able to influence so that one candidate have more advantage than another.
Another aspect of the proposed reform is how is it going to be implemented and how practical it would be for the government to prohibit anonymous contributions, as Vega admitted it would be a nightmare to write down the social security and telephone numbers and the address of each contributor, even for donations as little as 25 cents.
"The structure to implement this reform doesnt exist today. It needs additional resources," Vega acknowledged.
When asked if perhaps it would be cheaper for the government not to use all that money for public financing of campaigns, and invest it in strengthening current auditing and anti-corruption methods instead, Vega said it is one of the points that can be debated. However, he said the general perception of the current administration is that the proposed electoral reform is the best possible way to deal with corruption.
For his part, Martin said eliminating full public funding would fail the two basic purposes of the reform, which is to fight off government corruption in political campaigns and to provide equal opportunity for the candidates to convey their messages, as well as to for the voters to have equal access to these messages.
"I honestly believe the reform strengthens the constitutional rights of expression and of free association," Martin concluded.