A Red Herring on Public Financing

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Last week, the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) issued an analysis claiming that public campaign financing has no effect on how often incumbents get reelected to state legislatures. This means, according to CCP, that public financing programs “risk spending taxpayer dollars for results that are identical to those in states with privately-funded campaigns.”[1] CCP’s analysis is flawed on its own terms. But, more importantly, it ignores the many other benefits that public financing provides: it prevents corruption, gives candidates the time to meet voters instead of dialing for dollars, and makes races more competitive (even when incumbents win).

For starters, CCP’s analysis is not sophisticated enough to actually answer the question it’s asking. CCP treats all public financing systems as though they’re the same, and lumps them together to compare against states without public financing. But states design their public financing schemes in a variety of ways. And in this area, as in so many others, the details of a government program make a big difference. Scholars have found that clean elections states––which offer public financing equal to the entire average cost of running for an office––see significantly more competition than do states without public financing. States that only provide partial public financing, on the other hand, do not always see such significant benefit.[2] (Small-donor matching programs like New York City’s, which match donations with government money up to a certain amount, are a notable exception—they work very well.[3]) CCP combines these two categories, diluting any potential difference between clean lections states and states without public funding.[4]

Far more important than whether CCP accurately answered its own question, however, is whether it asked the right question in the first place. It didn’t. In fact, CCP got the question doubly wrong.

First, CCP conflates incumbent reelection rates with the broader issue of how competitive a state’s elections are. To CCP, winning is “the only competition that matters.”[5] By limiting the idea of competition to this one metric, CCP is molding the question to better fit the answer it wants.

But public financing can make elections more competitive in a number of ways, even if incumbents still get reelected. A scholarly consensus shows that public financing gets more candidates to run, so fewer incumbents get to coast to reelection without an opponent.[6] This is particularly true in otherwise “safe” districts. For instance, only 53.5% of Arizona’s safe districts were contested before public financing; that number skyrocketed to 74.5% after the state instituted its public finance system.[7] Maine also saw an increase, from 72.5% of safe districts contested to 77%, after passing a public financing law.[8]

Additionally, Clean Elections Programs have been found to decrease the winners’ margins of victory––so incumbents have to fight harder to hold onto their seats.[9] Incumbent reelection rates are just one of at least three measures of competitiveness, and public financing performs much better on the two measures that CCP leaves out.

Second, CCP’s analysis ignores the more profound effects that public financing can have on the way we run our elections. Look, first, at the candidates’ side:

  • Public funding makes it easier to run a credible campaign. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, candidates who take public money are no less likely to have political experience than those who do not, or those who run in states without public financing.[10] Instead, public funding “manufactures” quality candidacies, by giving money to qualified people who might not have the financial networks or love of fundraising that candidates normally need to succeed.[11]
  • It also changes the way candidates campaign. As might be expected, full-funding clean elections programs sharply lower the amount of time candidates have to spend raising money. Instead, candidates in clean elections spend significantly more time in the field (about 11.5% more weekly), meeting voters and directly campaigning.[12]

Public financing also has significant benefits on the voters’ side:

  • It increases participation in elections. Small-donor matching programs have been found to greatly increase both the number and diversity of donors to candidates who take part in them.[13]
  • And, while overall voter turnout may not increase in public funding states, clean elections programs do allow candidates to get their message out and better inform voters. As a result, voters “roll off”––or fail to vote for lower-level offices––at much lower levels in races in which at least one candidate takes full public funding.[14]

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, public financing systems reduce corruption. The Supreme Court has long recognized that large campaign donations are inherently corrupting to candidates, and that they create an appearance of corruption. Public financing systems combat both of these problems, by eliminating candidates’ reliance on big donors. We know that donations buy a number of things: meetings, greater efforts on favored bills (as well as blockage of disfavored bills), and changes to how bills are drafted.[15] Public financing cannot get money out of politics entirely––at least as long as wealthy individuals can engage in unlimited independent spending––but it does focus candidates’ energy on pleasing their constituents rather than big donors.

CCP’s analysis looks only at whether public financing reduces incumbents’ reelection rates. In so doing, it misses the forest for a single tree. Public funding of campaigns––especially through fully funded clean elections programs––has many benefits. No one solution is a cure-all, but public financing is a vital tool for improving our democracy.


[1] Joe Albanese, Ctr. for Competitive Pol., Do Taxpayer-Funded Campaigns Increase Political Competitiveness? 3 (June 2017), http://www.campaignfreedom.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017-06-05_Issue-Analysis-10_Do-Taxpayer-Funded-Campaigns-Increase-Political-Competitiveness.pdf.

[2] See, e.g., Michael G. Miller, Subsidizing Democracy: How Public Funding Changes Elections and How It Can Work in the Future 7 (2013).

[3] See, e.g., N.Y.C. Campaign Fin. Bd., Impact of Public Funds, https://www.nyccfb.info/program/impact-of-public-funds (last visited June 13, 2017).

[4] In fairness, some more detailed studies have also shown that knocking off incumbents is not public financing’s strong suit. See Michael J. Malbin, Campaign Fin. Inst., Citizen Funding for Elections 16 (2015), http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/books-reports/CFI_CitizenFundingforElections.pdf. CCP may therefore have reached a similar conclusion even if it had conducted a more sophisticated analysis. But we must remain at least somewhat skeptical given that CCP did not conduct such an analysis.

[5] Albanese, supra note 1, at 1.

[6] Malbin, supra note 4, at 16; Mimi Marziani et al., Brennan Ctr. for Justice, More Than Combatting Corruption: The Other Benefits of Public Financing 2-3 (2011), https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/The%20Other%20Benefits%20of%20Public%20Financing%2010%207%2011-%20%20FINAL.pdf; Miller, supra note 2, at 83-86.

[7] Miller, supra note 2, at 87.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 7. Partial funding systems do not have this effect, another reason why it is important to differentiate between different types of public financing schemes. Id.

[10] Id. at 89-91.

[11] Id. at 10.

[12] Id. at 56-62. Again, by contrast, partial funding systems do not have an effect. Id. at 61.

[13] Malbin, supra note 4, at 20-25.

[14] Miller, supra note 2, at 71-75. States that enacted Clean Elections programs also saw lower roll-off after implementing the programs as compared to earlier elections. Id. at 74-75.

[15] Malbin, supra note 4, at 28.