This Editorial originally provided by Public Campaign

December 12, 2007

Public Campaign's response to opposition view

Our pleasure in reading USA Today’s editors’ piece on “Five Reasons for Public Financing,” quickly turned to alarm reading the accuracy-challenged “opposing 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.

Says Smith:

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 government financing.
The GAO concluded that taxpayer-funded elections had no discernable positive effect on electoral competition, voter choice, interest group influence or voter participation.

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 more than 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.

Smith says:

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.

Smith says:

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 democracy.

Smith says:

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 maker.

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 is 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 Clean 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.

Smith says:

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.


Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246