This article originally appeared in the Herald Sun on Mar. 13, 2009
Despite a struggling economy, high unemployment and a massive state budget deficit, some North Carolina lawmakers are trying to take your money to fill their campaign coffers. In short, they want to expand a welfare program for politicians, forcing you to subsidize ideas you may abhor.
Senate Bill 20 would force taxpayers to finance the campaigns of candidates for state treasurer — even those candidates with whom they may disagree. SB 20 would add the state treasurer’s race to a 2007 bill (HB 1517) that initiated taxpayer-financed campaigns for three Council of State offices (auditor, superintendent of public instruction and commissioner of insurance) to use tax dollars to finance their campaigns.
Similarly, a house bill (H 120) would grant city councils the option of initiating taxpayer-financed campaigns for municipal election campaigns in their city (without being approved by voters).
Often referred to as "clean elections" or "voter-owned elections," this system of government coercion is hailed as a silver bullet for all that ails our political system.
Advocates of taxpayer-financed campaigns claim it will eliminate the corrupting influence of special interest groups, encourage more candidates to run for public office and help citizens feel that their vote matters.
Experience, however, proves these expected results never materialize.
First, research does not support any claim that taxpayer-subsidized campaigns would change elected officials’ behavior. A report by Massachussetts Institute of Technology professors Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder examined more than 40 academic studies on this topic and concluded that private contributions have little influence on the voting behavior of politicians. Likewise, a 2002 article in the Arizona Republic (Arizona adopted "clean elections" in 2000) noted that "analysis of the actual performance of Clean Elections legislators in Arizona suggests that they do not vote differently than privately funded legislators from the same party."
More than likely, candidates receive support from special interests because the candidates first display sympathy to various groups’ causes, not the other way around.
Secondly, taxpayer-financed campaigns do not increase the number of candidates running for public office. In Arizona, from 2002 to 2004, the number of statewide candidates fell from 39 to seven; the number of legislative candidates fell from 208 to 188.
Lastly, taxpayer-subsidized campaigns do not improve the public’s confidence in government with any assurances that their vote "matters" more. University of Missouri professors Jeffrey Milyo and David Primo studied a variety of state-level election laws — including taxpayer-financed campaigns — and found that taxpayer financing laws actually have a negative effect on the public’s opinion of whether or not their voice is heard by government officials. The authors offer this explanation: "Public financing may be predicated on false promises for a better democratic process. When the smoke clears and "politics as usual" returns after reform, individuals may become even more disenchanted with their government."
Moreover, candidates who know taxpayer dollars will finance their campaign can more easily disregard the opinions of their constituents. Why stay in touch with their concerns when your campaign coffers are swelling with taxpayer dollars?
Making this corrupt system even more difficult to defend is that it may very well increase the influence of special interests. Certain organizations, such as unions, could simply mine their membership rolls for the numerous small donations required to qualify their chosen candidate for the taxpayer-provided campaign funds.
Therefore, a limited amount of special interest money could leverage hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars toward their chosen candidate’s campaign. In the end, the candidate is still beholden to the union, and the union has more dollars to funnel to 527 groups to advocate for their chosen candidate. The result is that even more money is entered into the campaign process, special interest influence is magnified, and taxpayers suffer more erosion of their liberty.
Taxpayer-financed campaigns simply broaden the scope of government’s control over your money, and the evidence suggests the system doesn’t deliver on its promised benefits.
As a 2003 op-ed article in the Arizona Republic concluded: "Here’s the bottom line (with taxpayer-financed elections) … We’re left with a system that limits free speech, unfairly favors certain candidates, keeps powerful special interests in the game and drains funds from state priorities."