Tax-Financed Campaigns (Public Financing)

Tax-Financed Campaigns (Public Financing)

Taxpayer-funded political campaigns, often called “clean elections” by their supporters, are programs that seek to replace private, voluntary contributions from individuals to the candidates of their choice with government grants to qualifying candidates. Typically, these programs allow candidates to “opt in” if they agree both to limits on the size and source of their campaign contributions and to limits on their campaign spending. In exchange, these qualifying candidates receive either a lump sum grant of taxpayer funds, or “matching grants” of tax dollars for each small contribution they receive. Proponents have touted these programs as a way to “level the playing field” between wealthy citizens and average or poor citizens. However, the Institute for Free Speech’s research on these programs disputes these claims. Accordingly, IFS urges policymakers to use caution and examine the full-body of evidence when faced with proposals to implement similar programs in their states.

Several prominent jurisdictions have attempted taxpayer-funded programs for legislative campaigns. New York City implemented its program in the 1970s, Arizona and Maine have had their own “clean elections” laws in effect since 2000, and Connecticut joined the club in 2008. Analysis of each of these systems finds that they overwhelmingly fail to live up to the lofty goals set by their supporters.

The Institute has reported on how taxpayer-funded campaigns have been willfully exploited and manipulated by candidates seeking to abuse public funds for personal gain. Contrary to the claims of advocates, The Institute’s research in Arizona and Maine has shown that taxpayer-funded elections do not reduce lobbyist influence, do not produce more occupationally diverse legislatures, do not increase the percentage of women in legislatures, and do not reduce government spending. Additional research by IFS has demonstrated that taxpayer-financed campaign systems do not increase voter turnout either, contrary to proponents’ frequent claims.

In addition, the Institute studied the voting patterns of legislators who served in the Connecticut General Assembly in the 2007-08 and 2009-10 legislative sessions, and accepted taxpayer dollars for their re-election campaigns through the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP). Analysis of legislator voting records revealed that the CEP failed to change the frequency with which participating legislators voted in favor of the positions of organized interest groups.

The Institute will continue to monitor and evaluate these programs, and will strive to author the best scholarship on taxpayer-funded elections, in order to provide citizens and policymakers with the information necessary to making wise decisions about the value of such programs. So far, they have performed poorly, opening up new avenues for corruption, and failing to achieve their stated goals.

For an in-depth explanation of this oft-touted, but severely flawed issue, please read the Institute’s Policy Primer on taxpayer-financed campaigns here.


Articles of Note

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