02/20/05 — Reform group: Use tax checkoff to improve judicial elections

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Reform group: Use tax checkoff to improve judicial elections

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on February 20, 2005 2:08 AM

Want cleaner, fairer elections? A group working for reform says you need to check out your N.C. tax form and then check it.

Democracy North Carolina has been campaigning across the state this month, encouraging state residents to mark "yes" in the box labeled "N.C. Public Campaign Fund" on their state form.

By doing so, the taxpayer tells the state to contribute $3 to a fund that finances a non-partisan voter guide for judicial elections. The fund also gives money to judicial candidates who agree to strict fund-raising and spending limits.

Checking "yes" does not increase a person's tax or decrease a refund.

The N.C. General Assembly created the fund to help judicial candidates refrain from having to raise campaign funds, often from lawyers who might appear before them. This is the second year that the fund has existed, but many taxpayers are still unaware.

"It's like they didn't see it last year or they simply don't remember," said Hilda Rouse.

"A lot of people don't understand," added Eva Wilson. "They think it will mean higher taxes."

The two Goldsboro women assisted Beth Messersmith, co-director of Democracy North Carolina, in giving out information about the fund last week at the Wayne County Public Library. They will also distribute the leaflets at churches, stores, colleges and other places where they can catch taxpayers' eyes.

Democracy North Carolina lobbied the N.C. General Assembly to create the fund, only to find it's going to take some time before people begin to check the box off by habit. "We believe it could be five years," Ms. Messersmith said in an interview.

Last year, about 7 percent of N.C. taxpayers approved contributions to the fund. As a result, it received slightly more than $1 million.

But those numbers were kept low by the fact that some popular tax-preparation software did not either include the question or automatically answered "no," she said. Democracy North Carolina has worked with the N.C. Department of Revenue to ensure that the tax programs give people the option this year.

Several groups are mobilizing members to promote the fund this year. These include the League of Women Voters, the N.C. Center for Voter Education, and N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. Former governors Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Holshouser, a Republican, have appeared in public service announcements on TV and radio this spring. Another ad will feature U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has worked for national election reform.

Judicial candidates were a lot quicker than taxpayers to embrace the fund, Ms. Messersmith said. Twelve of the 16 people running for either the N.C. Court of Appeals or N.C. Supreme Court in 2004 agreed to limit both fund-raising and spending and thus qualified for public financing.

The fund also paid for a non-partisan voter guide that was mailed to nearly 4 million N.C. households in the weeks before the election.

In a statement, Wanda Bryant, re-elected to the N.C. Court of Appeals, said that she had been "strongly in favor of a reform that would limit the influence of big money contributions and reduce partisan politics in judicial campaigns ... As one of the first candidates to participate and and win election under this new system, I can personally attest to its effectiveness."

She added, "It was heartening to see so many voters at the polls on Election Day with the Judicial Voter Guide in hand."

Money raised this year will go toward the 2006 elections.

For more information, go to www.lwvnc.org or www.nc
judges.org or call 1-888-OUR-VOTE.