Maine Activists Embrace Taxpayer Subsidies for Politicians in Ignorance of Systemic Flaws

In Maine, some speech regulatory activists are already celebrating the 2016 election cycle as an important milestone. Not because they are expecting higher voter turnout, more competitive races, or more women or minority candidates running for office. Rather, these activists are giddy that more politicians are taking the hard-earned dollars of Maine taxpayers to run their campaigns.

Earlier this week, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE) cheered that this year, 62% of candidates for Maine legislative office are running using the state’s newly-updated public financing system – up from 53% in the 2014 cycle. Predictably, MCCE sees this development as a vindication of their agenda: “Increased participation in Clean Elections in 2016 shows that candidates are confident that they can run voter-centered campaigns without relying on big-money contributions. The law is working as intended to ensure a government more truly of, by, and for everyday people.”

“Working as intended,” in this context, means candidates are relying more than before on taxpayer money than on private, voluntary donations. This is not by any means an unexpected development – who would have doubted that offering politicians free funding for their campaigns would cause them to take it?

The Pine Tree State has had taxpayer-funded political campaigns since the passage of the Maine Clean Election Act in 1996. The original law featured a provision for “matching” public funds designed to offset opponents who received greater private contributions. Such systems were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011, leading to a decline in the number of Maine legislative candidates opting to run using tax dollars (from a high-water mark of 81% in 2008). Amendments narrowly passed via referendum in 2015 sought to reinvigorate participation in the system by formally removing the illegal provision and simply increasing state spending on the program.

Of course, giving away free money is not an accomplishment in and of itself, unless that is the ultimate goal of the system. In which case, proponents of the program like Maine Citizens for Clean Elections should certainly pat themselves on the back. But bragging about mere participation is akin to celebrating an increase in customers in a restaurant that gives away free food. Obviously, it isn’t the number of free transactions that matters – in the long run this would bankrupt the restaurant. So there must be a broader strategy for which the benefits outweigh the costs.

What are the benefits of so-called “clean elections?” Supporters will say the program keeps moneyed donors from participating in politics. Presumably, they do not want to keep private money out of politics simply because they hate the wealthy (although this may be one factor). Instead, it’s because they assume that such participation “corrupts” politicians or otherwise skews their behavior towards narrow interests in contrast to an ideal conception of how politics should be conducted.

Unfortunately, despite supporters offering a grab bag of theoretical justifications for taxpayer-funded campaigns, all of these rationalizations have fallen far short of reality. Original research from CCP on the performance of Maine and Arizona’s tax-financing systems has shown that such schemes fail to increase representation of women in legislatures, improve occupational diversity of lawmakers, stimulate voter turnout, or reduce lobbyist influence. Further analysis of Connecticut’s tax-financing program demonstrates that these schemes also fail to change legislative voting behavior. Based on this sorry history, Maine will find itself spending more tax dollars on more candidates who will be no more diverse, exciting to voters, or independent of influence from organized interests.

The wastefulness of these systems is further compounded by its incentivizing of frivolous candidates and even outright fraud. It is a fact that incumbents in states with “clean elections” win re-election at roughly the same rate as those in other states – that is, at an astronomically high rate. This implies that campaign subsidies, even if they do encourage more electoral challengers to incumbents, attract mostly ineffective or unserious candidates who otherwise would not raise enough money to campaign if faced with scrutiny by actual donors. The result is a system whereby taxpayers pay for incumbents to beat their opponents the same way they did before.

Because taxpayer-funded campaigns allow candidates to gain thousands of dollars without having to solicit donations directly, they have also encouraged numerous politicians to abuse the system for their own personal gain. Just this week, a 2015 City Council candidate in Queens, New York, was arrested for forging fake contributions in order to receive the tax dollars of New Yorkers at a whopping 6 to 1 rate. Although corruption is an important concern in any system, it’s inarguable that such an incentive would not have existed in a traditional, voluntary campaign finance system. It is also a recurring problem that has surfaced many times before, and is all the more egregious because it involves taxpayer money.

All of this is to say that though MCCE may be pleased that its agenda is gaining more traction in terms of participation among politicians, one should be skeptical about this development being a cause for celebration beyond the narrow interests of ideological activists. Increased adoption of taxpayer funding for campaigns may well mean increased instances of fraud at worst, or heavier spending that fails to achieve any number of goals with regard to lawmaker diversity or changed voting patterns at best.

Given this abysmal record, it would be wise for Mainers to dispense with subsidies for politicians and consider the merits of a traditional campaign finance system.