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What If We Just Got Rid of All the Money in Political Campaigns?

• January 21, 2014 • 10:00 AM

Maine State House. (Photo: Albany NY/Wikimedia Commons)

Three states have already put in place alternatives to standard fundraising practices, but what they’ve found might surprise you.

Is campaign money really a problem? People complain a great deal about the influence of big money over political candidates, how money is polarizing our politics and driving out people with good ideas but small wallets, and how donors are buying winners in elections. But it turns out there’s not much evidence to support these claims. Money, even lots of it, has only very modest effects on elections, and sometimes it’s hard to discern any real effect at all.

But one thing that even defenders of the current campaign finance system will generally concede is that candidates and officeholders spend far too much of their time on fundraising. There’s an expectation that members of Congress spend about four hours per day doing fundraising activities. That’s a lot! It’s just considered part of the job today, but it crowds out other things that may be more valuable, such as legislating, meeting with constituents, talking to colleagues, and all the other components of lawmaking, not to mention spending time with family or just getting some sleep. And when you’re fundraising, chances are you’re spending your time talking with a very wealthy and powerful sample of Americans who are not at all representative of the rest of the country.

It’s hard to complain about increased voter-candidate interaction, increased voter participation, and a wider range of candidates in elections.

Concerned about a corrosive effect of money on lawmaking, several states—Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona—have created publicly financed systems for state legislative elections. The U.S. Supreme Court says you can’t just ban private spending in elections, but you can offer incentives. These states give candidates the equivalent of a typical election’s worth of money in exchange for them forgoing any private fundraising or spending.

How well does it work? Political scientist Michael Miller looks at this question in his new book Subsidizing Democracy. (Also check out his recent C-SPAN appearance on the topic.) Through interviews, election data analysis, and a survey of over 1,000 candidates, Miller finds that public financing has yielded some important benefits for these three states’ political systems.

For one thing, the candidates who are part of the public (or “clean”) campaign finance systems there tend, as expected, to have far more time on their hands. And they actually use that time to go out and meet with voters. So, less time in private fundraisers or on the phone in a tiny room, more time interacting with the people they hope to represent. Not bad.

Second, voters seem to be responding to all this extra attention from candidates by participating more. Miller finds that there is less ballot rolloff (people voting in the top-ballot races but ignoring the down-ballot ones) in contests where at least one candidate receives public funding.

Finally, Miller finds that public financing opens up elections to a broader array of candidates than would usually get to participate. Even if the winner of an election isn’t the biggest spender, you usually need a certain amount of money to mount a serious campaign. Public financing assures that more people can reach that threshold, infusing politics with new people and new ideas.

Now, it’s hard to complain about increased voter-candidate interaction, increased voter participation, and a wider range of candidates in elections. Taxpayers are asked to foot the bill for far stupider projects.

But most reforms have unintended consequences, and public financing is not exempt from this. Miller and I, along with Andrew Hall, have found some preliminary evidence that public financing contributes to partisan polarization. The method by which this occurs is not completely clear, but it appears that when we open up elections to a wider range of candidates, the candidates who take advantage of this tend to be more ideologically extreme than those who rise up through traditional financing schemes. Party donors don’t get to filter out candidates the way they normally do. My guess is that this outcome is not what most backers of public financing initially hoped for.

At any rate, this all remains an interesting area to consider. If we’re wondering what our political system would be like without all this money, we might just want to pay attention to the places that have already done that.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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