Boston Globe’s wet kiss for ‘clean elections’

As a former reporter for the Des Moines Register and Politico.com, I often view campaign finance stories from the lens of a former reporter. A story today in the Boston Globe about Maine’s taxpayer financing program for political candidates illustrates how biased some major media outlets can be when covering campaign finance issues.

First, the headline: “Maine blazes a trail in funding,” the Globe says. The subhead is even worse: “Clean election system popular.”

Oh, really? The system is popular? Does the Globe cite polling data from Maine residents? Perhaps a focus group of Mainers singing the system’s praises? Nope; the popularity justification stems from the fact that 80 percent of legislative candidates participate. Yes, folks, politicians will take “free” money for their campaigns—especially when anti-free speech interest groups wage a concerted campaign to tar them as “dirty” and corrupt if they do not put their campaign on the public dole. Shocking.

The narrative details an effort by Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell to beg for $5 checks in order to qualify for a windfall check from the public treasury.

Perhaps most outrageously, the story asserts that Maine’s program, approved by voters in 1996, “has inspired other states.” That’s true, to an extent, but it might also be useful to inform readers that since Maine and Arizona enacted their systems of taxpayer funded campaigns in 1996 and 1998 via voter initiative, not a single state has followed suit through the ballot box.

Since 1998, five states (Oregon, Missouri, California, Alaska and—yes!—Massachusetts) have rejected similar initiatives—most by roughly 2-1 margins. How popular! Let’s look at another metric of popularity: the willingness of taxpayers at large to support the program. In Maine the percentage of taxpayers opting to earmark a portion of their tax liability—which does not increase their tax bill—to the Maine Clean Elections program dropped from a high of 16 percent in 1998 to 9 percent in 2008, according to data provided by Maine Revenue Services. So, about half of all taxpayers who supported the program at its inception stopped doing so.

The Globe‘s story quotes several “clean elections”-lovin’ candidates and activists—Mitchell, her “clean campaign” manager Marc Malon, Common Cause honcho Arn Pearson, Republican “clean candidate” Peter Mills, “clean campaign” manager Brandon Maheu and “clean activist” David Weeda. Mills comes the closest to criticizing the program, noting why the system may be so “popular” with Maine legislators: “The clean election system is both a sword and a shield. The sword is the money they give you, and the shield is the protection against someone outspending you. That’s very powerful,” he said. “That’s the thing that lures people into the system, even if they don’t like it very much.” [emphasis added]

Since 1998, the only state to pass a similar program through any method is Connecticut, whose legislature passed its Citizens’ Election Program in 2005. As the Globe explains, “This year, Connecticut will for the first time make a robust public financing plan available to its gubernatorial candidates.” By robust, perhaps the Globe meant non-existent, because a federal judge ruled the program unconstitutional months ago and lawmakers are still squabbling over how—and whether—to fix the failed program. I guess that detail was too obscure for the Globe‘s readers. Furthermore, the Globe glosses over Massachussets experience with taxpayer financing. It writes, “Massachusetts voters approved a public financing plan in a 1998 referendum, but legal and political machinations killed it.”

What were the dastardly “legal and political machinations” that killed taxpayer financed campaigns in Massachusetts? Those pesky voters weighing in via referenda. Horrible! How corrupt! Bay State voters passed the “Clean Elections Law”—Question 2—in 1998 with 58 percent but reversed course in 2002. The legislature never funded the program in the interim. In 2002, the advisory initiative Question 3 was defeated 66 to 23 percent (with 11 percent leaving the question blank)

The next sentence contains a factual error: “A bill to create a federal program has 151 House sponsors,” the Globe writes. Actually, as of March 30, the bill has 141 co-sponsors, according to the Library of Congress’ legislation database THOMAS. Oh well, what’s a little sponsor-padding among friends?

Despite clear blows to the utopian fantasy of controlling citizen speech in elections, the story continues on in a blissfully ignorant, one-sided fashion. No one opposing this government program is offered a platform to explain several of the possible principled reasons one could oppose this boondoggle.

For example, research by the Center for Competitive Politics shows that—besides its “popularity” with incumbent candidates—”clean elections” have failed by most metrics. It has strengthened candidate ties to interest groups by incentivizing involvement with outside, organized interests, which help raise qualifying contributions. When “clean” lawmakers get into office, they vote in similar patterns in regard to interest group priorities. Such programs don’t save taxpayer dollars—after enactment of taxpayer financed campaigns, spending in Maine grew faster than the rest of the country and its tax burden grew to an all-time high.

As CCP President Sean Parnell notes, taxpayer financed campaigns empower “special interests” by incentivizing campaigns to outsource their fundraising and and other efforts to outside groups. The Globe simply notes this uncritically: “Former House speaker John Richardson has enlisted unions that endorsed him—including state troopers and police, plumbers, and pipe-fitters—as a source of fund-raising manpower.” How is that removing “special interests” from influencing campaigns, as supporters of “clean elections” claim as a main goal of these schemes?

The wet kiss of a story wooed one national interest group whose mission is to “promote Clean Elections-style public financing in states around the country like Arizona and Maine…” Public Campaign Action Fund, an interest group that spends millions of dollars promoting campaign finance restrictions and regulations, wasted no time posting an item on their blog touting the one-sided story: “Maine gubernatorial candidate shows why Clean Elections system is model for other states,” the blog gushes.

If the Boston Globe wants to be viewed as more than a mouthpiece for these interest groups, perhaps it should make a bit more of an effort to keep its news section from resembling its outspoken opinion page.

Note: this post was updated March 30 to add information.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.