Congress Shall Make No Law...
2:04 PM
Taxpayer-Funded Campaigns: The Revolution That Never Came

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to take up IJ’s First Amendment challenge to Arizona’s system of taxpayer-funded campaigns, it is worthwhile to ask whether systems like these deliver the promised benefits to the public that pays for them. Inevitably, supporters claim that public funding will revolutionize—and, of course, elevate—democracy. See, for example, the lofty list of promises made by drafters of a proposal currently before Congress.


Arizona has been using taxpayer dollars to pay politicians to run for office for 10 years, and so has Maine. Other states and localities have likewise experimented with different varieties of full- or partial-public funding for political campaigns. In all that time, what have we learned?


In his new IJ research brief, political scientist David Primo takes a clear-headed look at the social science evidence for key claims of public funding backers. His conclusion: The reality falls short of the rhetoric.


For example, public funding is supposed to “clean up” politics, which ought to improve citizen perceptions of government. Yet the only statistical study to examine the question found that with public funding, citizens are less likely to believe that officials care what they think or to believe that they have a say in what government does. Likewise, evidence shows that public funding has either no effect or a negative effect on voter turnout.


Nor have Clean Elections systems rid politics of special interests. When asked by the GAO, residents of Arizona and Maine were about as likely to believe that interest group influence increased as they were to believe it decreased. Primo notes that this shouldn’t be surprising; after all, even legislators elected “clean” get lobbied.


Finally, public funding has not made elections more competitive. While some studies suggest there are more candidates running (small wonder: pay politicians to run for office and more will) and vote margins are narrowing, these changes cannot clearly be attributed to public funding. Moreover, it appears a more important measure of competiveness—the incumbency reelection rate—has remained about the same. If, in the end, the same people are being reelected, it seems hard to say competitiveness has improved—or that the revolution has come.