The Death of Clean Elections?

I can only hope.

On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a law in Arizona which provided what are known as “matching funds” in its public campaign finance system.  Arizona’s law was modeled on Maine’s Clean Elections law, including the matching fund provision.

For those unfamiliar with the system, Maine and Arizona allocate a specific amount of money from the state that will be given to candidates who run for specific state offices (state legislature, Governor, etc) if that person jumps through a couple hoops and does not raise any private money.  If that person is facing a traditionally funded candidate (one who raises their own money), and that candidate ends up spending more money than the “clean” candidate spends, than the candidate who is on public financing is entitled to matching funds to help make sure the public candidate doesn’t get overwhelmed by “big money”, or what have you.

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court did away with that matching fund provision.  I can get into the reasons why, but if you are interested in that, there is plenty of media coverage on the arguments from the majority (and the dissent) for you to read.

Rather, I write this article, because this particular incident from the court provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate the Clean Election law in Maine, and decide if it is really something we want to keep doing.  Unsurprisingly to most, I think the system should be scrapped.

Al Diamon already beat me to the punch, in a rather brutal and entertaining take down of public financing for campaigns.  But I’d like to dive a little deeper into the flaws of the system than he did.  I have four main problems with the Clean Elections law:

It Is Maddeningly Wasteful

Quick, what do you want your government spending money on, especially in the middle of a horrendous economic downturn?

If you answered “lawn signs for a Republican candidate running in Portland, the most liberal area of the state, as well as their opponent, a Democrat who has more job security than Charlie Rangel” than I guess clean elections is for you.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections will tell you that the system costs Maine taxpayers only about two dollars each year.  But, describing it that way makes it sound like a small amount of money, and part of the reason we have such a bloated, overextended government is because our budget is filled with all these seemingly minor contributions, all of which add up.  They are like when you spend a week making purchases of 5 dollars or less, so you don’t think you’ve spent a lot of money, only to find out later that week that the collective damage of all those snacks, trinkets and lunches was a huge sum of cash.

Let’s think of it slightly differently.  Here is a fun statistic that I hope will blow your mind a little bit.

The contribution – base, not counting matching funds – of the taxpayers to a person running for the Maine House of Representatives in a contested primary and general election is $5,648.  For a contested primary and general election in the Senate, that number is $26,824.

I’d do the numbers for the gubernatorial disbursements, but it is too depressing to think about.

With Maine’s tax rate that means that to pay for a single legislative candidate, it will take the entire income tax contribution of a single filing Mainer who makes a hair over $74,300.  To pay for a Senate candidate, it will take the entire income tax contribution of a single filing Mainer who makes $323,400.  And, for candidates who don’t have contested primaries, but contested general elections, those numbers are $62,600 and $255,000 respectively.  So, not much better.

Ah, screw it, I’ll do the gubernatorial numbers.  Paying for just Peter Mills’ primary bid would have eaten the entire income tax contribution of a person who earned more than seven million dollars.  So, ironically, maybe Les Otten actually paid for Peter Mills to run against him.  Paying for Libby Mitchell’s entire campaign would have consumed the entire income tax contribution of a Mainer making almost 22.5 million dollars.

The per capita income in the state of Maine, as of 2009, was $36,745.  So if you’d prefer to think of it this way, paying for Libby Mitchell’s publicly financed campaign (just her by herself) ate up the entire tax contributions of 612 Mainers who made the average per capita wage in the state.  So, one super wealthy human being, or 612 regular Mainers – take your pick.

Think about that for a moment.  Every single candidate running for the legislature who takes public financing – more than 80% of all candidates – is essentially removing either a wealthy, or a super-wealthy Mainer out of the income tax system.  They completely consume the entire contribution from hundreds of the best off Mainers, people making two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and almost ten times what the average Maine person earns.  And obviously the gubernatorial race is even more damaging.

But it gets better.  Want to get really depressed?  Consider this.

John Martin, the Democratic icon, had a pretty easy ride last year.  He had no primary election competition.  He had no general election competition.  He ran against no one and was 100% guaranteed that he would once again be in the legislature.  He still received $1,878.30 in taxpayer money for his non-races.  He ran against no one and yet he consumed the entire income tax contribution of a single filing Mainer who makes just a hair over $30,000 dollars.  So, just a bit below the average Mainer’s wage.

And now consider who that money is going toward.  Going through the list of clean candidates, you find a staggering number of people who got utterly crushed by their opponent, because they were in massively slanted districts against popular incumbents.  You find an enormous number of people who were actually paid to run against no one (either in a primary, a general, or as in Martin’s case, both).  You’ve got fringe candidates who are barely qualified (based only on satisfying the constitutional age and citizenship requirements) to serve in the legislature, who knew they had no chance but thought it would be fun to do it anyway.  You have candidates who were crushed.  You have candidates who were never worried or facing any kind of threat.

And each and every one of these foolish disbursements is taking a wealthy or super-wealthy Maine citizen’s entire tax contribution.  Maine has crumbling roads, a terrible infrastructure generally, struggling schools, an older population in need of services, challenging unemployment, and swelling welfare rolls, all of which are more deserving of public money than some self-aggrandizing fringe legislative candidate’s bumper sticker budget.

2 dollars a person indeed.

Start thinking about just how many people’s entire tax contribution is funding this, and hopefully that approach to government spending melts away.  This nickel and dime garbage is exactly why governments waste so much money on so much pointless spending.

Was the supposed plague of special interest money in the system so corrupting as to justify this?  I would suggest, no.  Not even remotely close.

It Is Begging To Be Abused

There are lots of things that are okay to spend money on that really, when you think about it, are kind of absurd.

Sure, you have the typical swath of useless political swag.  Spending money on buttons and magnets with the candidate’s face on it doesn’t really contribute anything to the political process, but at least it is harmless.  And yes, there are people buying laptops (absolutely absurd for such a low level race as the Maine House, and because, you know, in 2011 basically everyone has a computer already).  That kind of thing is stupid and rife with waste, but again, harmless in the grand scheme of things.

But what happens when the sleepy, boring campaigning that is usually done in Maine is turned on its head by somebody who wants to make a point, or be provocative as a publicity stunt.

I haven’t shared this story previously, but in the 2010 race, I spoke with one Republican candidate who was taking MCEA funding who was considering a rather interesting stunt.  This candidate was opposed to public financing, and wanted to make a point while also trying to get media attention and get people buzzing.

His idea?  Buy condoms with campaign branding on it.  Indeed, if I remember correctly, I believe he was even considering something interesting perhaps being printed on the, er, item itself (his face, perhaps?).  Gives new meaning to “getting screwed by the politicians”, for sure.

In any event, he wanted to hand these out and intentionally provoke media inquiries about the stunt, as a way to demonstrate that Clean Election money was going to waste, and that any enterprising legislature is capable of spending that tax money on objectionable or offensive things if they want, and it is completely legal.

I told him not to do it, but that if he did he should write a check to MCEA to cover the cost of the item, just to send a signal to the taxpayers that while he was trying to make a point, he wasn’t going to ACTUALLY waste their money doing it.  I never did follow up to see if he did it, but I don’t think he did.

Regardless, the point remains that the money given to legislative candidates is pretty broad, and is already being abused by people who don’t take seriously the spending of tax dollars (see Dill, Cynthia and her laptop).  But the potential is there for much greater abuse (see stunt, condoms).  Indeed, I’m sure that if I had the time and interest to comb through the expenditures of MCEA funding, I could find a treasure trove of stupid, pointless and entirely objectionable things.

All of which are being paid for by the entire tax contribution from wealthy Mainers.

It Doesn’t Prepare Potential Lawmakers for Higher Office

Quick:  what is the biggest advantage for incumbent politicians serving in Washington D.C.?

Answer:  money.

Quick:  what is the one thing that almost no potential Republican candidates who could run against Chellie Pingree or Mike Michaud know how to do?

Answer:  raise money.

Maine’s Clean Elections law is a gift to incumbent politicians in higher offices.  It has created a system where entire generations of lower level politicians have never learned how to ask for money.  They’ve never learned how to build a base of donors.  They’ve never learned who to target, where to go, how to ask, how to follow up, how to broaden the base of financial support, raise money online, make cold phone calls to donors, or any of the grunt work it takes to raise money.

At the same time, there is also an entire generation of party activists who have no skills raising money.  And, the grassroots voters are now taken out of participatory democracy, and aren’t being asked for money.

In short, the entire system of identifying, asking for and raising money for political campaigns has been lost throughout most of the political machinery in Maine.

Maybe that sounds like paradise to you.  And maybe it is.  Until you consider that a lot of great, up and coming, young legislators from both parties are lost in the wilderness when it comes to raising money, almost immediately dimming their prospects to take on incumbents who are serving in Washington.

I’ve talked to more “up and coming” Republicans than I can count who are completely clueless about how higher level campaigns are run.  You tell them they have to spend several hours every single day on the phone calling people – out of the blue – and asking for money, and they stare back at you blankly and say, “really, why?”  It isn’t that they don’t know they have to raise money, it is that they don’t know how, and seem to all assume that their ideas and personal charisma (usually with an actual deficit of both) will lead to legions of online moneybombers propping up their campaigns.

When they do learn how to raise money, it is usually too late to do anything about it.

Incumbents are taken down, usually, by strong organizations, and well funded quality candidates.

None of Maine’s legislators are building a base.  Almost none of them would start off a potential run for Congress or the U.S. Senate with money in the bank from previous runs.  Almost none of them would start with an existing fundraising network, or a proven ability to raise money.  No, every candidate that runs against any of the Washington incumbents is either a “business outsider” with no political experience, or a lackluster legislative sacrificial lamb.

Obviously money isn’t everything, but we have raised an entire generation of politicians in the state who have no idea how to raise money, and believe it or not that isn’t a good thing.

It Breeds Laziness

The worst thing you can ever do for a legislature is make running for it easy.

Take out anything resembling risk, or difficulty, and you invite any number of people to run for office who aren’t serious, are stroking their own ego, and worst of all, have a very lazy approach to running for office.

When you get free money, your inspiration to hit the pavement and meet your constituents and lobby them drops dramatically.  You start to think of campaigning in terms of what that money can buy – signs, bumper stickers, websites, laptop computers, buttons and so forth, and less about knocking on doors, explaining your positions to somebody (a requisite before you ask them for money, for sure), going to supermarkets to shake hands, touring businesses, and all the other things involved in retail politics.

Having to raise private money for a political campaign means that you have one more inspiration to talk to members of your community.  Needing to raise money means you are going to look for money in political action committees, party committees, and so on and so forth, but it also means you are going to look for checks from individual constituents, something you can do if you hit it off with somebody when you go door to door.  It also means you are going to go to local businesses looking for support, and to see if they can contribute.  Maybe you go to a local Kiwanas meeting to shake hands and ask for money.

Even the act of looking for money from PACs engages you in the process.  It means you are thinking about issues, reaching out and making contacts with interest groups, exerting actual effort to politically engage.  I can’t over-state how important that is for political neophytes.  If you are somebody who has been on the sidelines all of your life and never participated, being thrown to the wolves and being made to fend for yourself means that if you actually want to succeed, you have to figure out a way to engage with not only your constituents, but also the process itself.  And if our goal is quality legislators, we don’t want a lot of clueless, unconnected people making laws.

The fact that it is harder to raise money yourself means that lazy people, or people who aren’t savvy enough to navigate the process, will fail at it, and people who work hard will succeed.

Giving people free money to park themselves in a cave and coast their way through an election without doing the grunt work produces lazy and arrogant candidates who end up being proud of “not having knocked on any doors” and spending all of their time arguing with people on the internet on a taxpayer subsidized computer.

Count me as somebody who wants to see legislators forced to work harder and connect with more people and justify their own existence in order to finance their runs.

In Summation

These are just a few of the problems I have with Maine’s Clean Elections law.  There are others (many others).

But this decision by the Supreme Court has forced us to take a fresh look at the law, and when we look at things critically, it is hard to find a way to justify the extravagance, waste, and indeed harm that the system produces.  Tax money isn’t a slush fund to pay for a long wish list – it is the blood, sweat and tears of Maine’s working people, and every single penny of it that is spent should be toward worthwhile things that actively benefit Maine people.

Fix the roads.  Fund schools.  Cut taxes.  Do just about anything you can think of other than paying for yard signs.  Especially since it “solved” a problem that wasn’t really a problem to begin with.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.