This Editorial originally provided by
December 12, 2007
Public Campaign's response to opposition view
Our pleasure in reading USA Today’s editors’ piece
Reasons for Public Financing,” quickly turned to alarm reading the
view” by the Center for Competitive Politics' Bradley A. Smith.
We’ve sent our official letter to the editor, but that limited us to 250 words,
which was not satisfying in the least. So herewith are our corrections of
Smith’s exercise in fact distortion and twisted context.
The last major campaign finance law, known as McCain-Feingold, required the
independent audit and investigative arm of Congress, the Government
Accountability Office, to study government financing systems in Maine and
Arizona, states that proponents cited as exemplary of the alleged benefits of
The GAO concluded that taxpayer-funded elections had no discernable positive
effect on electoral competition, voter choice, interest group influence or voter
What he doesn’t say:
The 2003 study of Arizona’s and Maine’s Clean Elections program by the U.S.
General Accounting Office (GAO) stated that with only two election cycles to
analyze, it was “too early to draw causal linkages to changes, if any, that
resulted from the public financing programs in the two states.” That said, a
critical reading of the report did show that it documented several positive
changes in the states under Clean Elections: more candidates running, more races
contested, and more races decided by competitive margins.
Subsequent studies have confirmed these findings. For example, in 2005,
University of Wisconsin professor Kenneth R. Mayer
led a study that concluded that public funding programs have increased the
number of candidates willing and able to run for state legislative office,
particularly for challengers; that it has increased the likelihood that an
incumbent will have a competitive race; and that the reelection rate for
incumbents in Maine and Arizona dropped in 2002 and 2004.
In Arizona, where Clean Elections has been available to candidates since
2000, we’ve also seen small donors play a larger role than previously in
influencing campaigns. The number of donors to gubernatorial campaigns increased
three-fold from 1998, when elections were privately financed, to 2002, when
the public financing option was available. The $5 qualifying contributions
collected by gubernatorial candidates in 2002 came from a more geographic and
economically diverse group of donors than did the private contributions raised
by candidates who did not participate in the Clean Elections program.
But even worse than failing to deliver on its promised results, tax
financing can erode confidence in government. Political scientists Jeffrey Milyo
and David Primo found that it negatively affects whether people feel "they have
a say" in government or whether "officials care" about the public interest.
The first Clean Elections officials in this country took office in Arizona and
Maine after the 2000 elections. The
2004 study quoted by Smith relies on data drawn from individual survey
responses from the National Election Studies (NES) for the years 1952-2000. That
means that it’s based on surveys done before people had any experience with full
public financing systems. Meanwhile,
recent bipartisan polling
conducted in June 2006 shows that voters think Clean Elections makes a
difference on accountability. Eighty-two percent of voters believe it is likely,
as a result of publicly financed elections, that candidates will win on their
ideas, not because of the money they raise, and 81 percent believe it is likely
politicians will be more accountable to voters instead of large contributors.
Tax funding of campaigns is supposed to reduce special-interest
influence. But since Maine's program began, the number of lobbyists in the state
has increased dramatically. And in Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano relied heavily
on labor unions to do the work needed for her to receive the government subsidy.
Additionally, most taxpayer-financing schemes only further entrench the status
quo and empower political insiders by penalizing independent citizen speech.
What he doesn’t tell you:
Under Clean Elections, more candidates are running than before and are getting
their messages out to voters. Far from “entrenching political insiders,” we are
seeing waitresses, firefighters, and others ready for community leadership but
without access to big money running for office and winning. Right now there are
more than 220 officials who ran using the system serving in the states.
According to a 2006 survey on the Maine Clean Elections Act, 87 percent of
first-time candidates in the state said that having public funding available was
very or somewhat important in their decision to run.
Under Clean Elections, candidates receive public funds to run their campaigns
only after they meet strict requirements. These include raising a set number of
small contributions, typically $5, from constituents. This helps favor
candidates who are wealthy in numbers of supporters rather than in wealthy
supporters. Labor unions are but one type of organization that can mobilize
members to contribute $5 to a candidate; so are issue groups, churches,
volunteer associations, and other organizations where people join together under
a common interest. Organizing people (not big money) is the essence of
And, as usual, there is waste. A candidate for governor in Maine used taxpayer
dollars to pay her husband nearly $100,000 in consulting fees. In Arizona,
public money was used to "campaign" in nightclubs and to buy a frozen drink
What he doesn’t tell you:
In any political system, there will be people who bend and break the law; there
will also be room for improvement. The Maine case that Smith cites refers to the
2006 gubernatorial election, when Barbara Merrill, an independent candidate,
paid a company owned by her husband, a long-time professional political
consultant to develop television advertisements. This was not illegal, but it
set off a controversy about whether it was ethical for a candidate to pay a
spouse with taxpayer funded money. Subsequently, the Maine Commission on
Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices has recommended a law change.
Democratic Rep. John Piotti
sponsoring legislation that would outlaw this practice.
The Arizona case Smith refers to involved three Libertarian candidates who
abused the system by using funds to live the high life. By a vote of 5 to 0 the
Elections Commission ordered them to return the more than $104,000 they had
spent on drinks, sushi, and the like. Simply stated, they broke the law and
they were punished.
Tax financing of campaigns takes your money and gives it to someone else
so that person can run against the things in which you believe. Such a welfare
system for politicians will not cure our system. Real reform will occur only
after citizens are freed of government restraints on their political speech.
Call it "the First Amendment solution."
What he doesn’t say:
If Smith were truly concerned about public underwriting of speech, perhaps he
should consider revoking the tax subsidies for his own organization, the Center
for Competitive Politics (CCP). After all, you, me, and the rest of the public
are subsidizing CCP and therefore Smith’s ability to write his rants, since
donors to his organization get a tax break. We’re not worried about that because
we believe that the more speech from the more people, the better. As the
U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled, in Maine, "No one has a right to speak
unanswered or 'to be free from vigorous debate.'”
Smith’s distortions may force us to correct the record, but we’ll defend his
right to so called “taxpayer subsidies” to engage in a vigorous public debate.
Adam Smith contributed to this post.