"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Advocates of political change always face at least one formidable objection. Since it is never possible to predict with certainty what consequences will flow from reform, opponents of the status quo can always attack by saying that any change will result in something bad, even though the intention is to do good.
At least three possible things could go wrong with a voluntary clean election system, that is, a system in which candidates have the option to finance their campaigns with public funds rather than with private donations. In such a system, public funding might prove unattractive to the candidates because receiving money from the government stigmatizes the recipients, making victory at the polls difficult. Second, clean money candidates might be under-funded and for that reason do poorly in their electoral efforts. Finally, it is at least possible that reform theorizing is wrong in its anticipation that reducing the role of private money in politics will increase the number and kind of people who will seek public office. Candidate diversity might not grow as much as reform advocates believe will be the case.
A voluntary clean money system has been in place for elected offices in the state of Arizona since the 2000 campaigns. This is too short a period of time to determine clean money's impact on actual legislation. But the experience of the 2000 elections and the 2002 primary can cast light on the questions of whether clean money handicaps candidates in running for office and acts to enhance diversity among office seekers.
Data compiled by The Clean Elections Institute suggests that both Democratic and Republican candidates increasingly are exercising the clean money option. In the 2000 general elections, public financing was mainly a vehicle for Democrats. Almost half (32 of 70) of the Democrats running for office opted into the clean election system that year, while only 8 of 68 Republicans did so. That imbalance, though still present, is much less obvious this year. All of the nine Democratic candidates for state wide office, including Janet Napolitano who is running for Governor, are clean money candidates. What is of great interest is the fact that this time, six of the nine Republican candidates for office are also clean candidates, though the Republican candidate for Governor, Matt Salmon, is financing his effort with private donations. There remains a party imbalance in races for the state legislature. Only 2 of 11 Republicans in contested races for the Arizona Senate are accepting public funds, while 9 of 11 Democrats are doing so. But in contested races for the state House of Representatives there is less of a disparity: 28 of 37 Democrats are running as clean candidates compared to 17 of 37 Republicans. What this suggests is that candidates are not fleeing from the system and that Republicans may be increasingly disposed to accept public funding.
The most likely reason that the shift to the public funding is occurring is that candidates benefit from doing so. Arizona's Clean Election system contains a matching provision that allocates additional public funds to clean candidates who are in danger of being outspent by their privately financed opponents. As a result clean money candidates received $31,159 compared to the average of $25,885 raised privately by candidates in 2000. Furthermore in the 2000 Primary, publicly funded candidates typically were successful in securing their party nominations. Among Democrats 74.4 per cent of the clean money Democrats won their primary race. That statistic for Republicans was 66.6 percent.
This year only two of the Democratic candidates for statewide office faced opposition in seeking their party's nomination. In both of those cases, the winner was a clean candidate. Significantly in light of the reluctance of Republicans compared to Democrats to accept public funding, clean money Republicans too were successful. Five of the six clean Republicans vying for statewide office won contested races. Clean money in short represents neither a system that places an office seeker at a funding disadvantage nor involves having to contend with a negative stigma. With that the case, there is no surprise in learning that the system is increasingly attractive to Democrats and Republicans alike.
Advocates of public financing of elections have also argued that such a system would increase the number and diversity of candidates for office. And indeed that is precisely what has happened in Arizona. The Clean Elections Institute data show that there are more candidates running for office than before the implementation of the new system, and among these candidates are increased numbers of women and minorities.
With all of this true, it is hard to believe that in a few years time the substance of Arizona politics will not change as well. On one hand traditionally under-represented groups will possess a stronger voice in the legislature and in the executive branch. On the other hand the influence of private money on the political process will be reduced. It is too early to claim victory, but the evidence to date strong suggests that the Democracy Matters tag line - Change Elections, Change America - may well correspond to what happens when elections are publicly funded.