My turn: 'Clean elections' a bad idea

Posted: Monday, July 30, 2007

Proponents of so-called "clean elections" in Alaska are trying to sell fool's gold to voters. Supporters know their proposal looks valuable at first glance, so they are hoping to enact the measure without a close inspection. But a closer inspection reveals that what they are peddling is a sham.

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There is no denying that the VECO corruption scandal is an alarming indictment against those politicians that apparently accepted bribes. But that is all it is - those involved in the scandal accepted bribes directly, with no connection to Alaska's privately funded campaign system. Alaska already has laws that prohibit bribery of public officials and the lawmakers who violated the public trust will be prosecuted accordingly.

But advocates of taxpayer subsidies for political campaigns are using the bribery scandal to rush Alaskans into adopting so-called "clean elections," which will increase the advantages of incumbents, reduce the competitiveness of elections, divert scarce funds away from Alaska's real priorities and limit the ability of candidates to communicate with voters.

The idea being sold is that taxpayer financing will raise the public's trust in government. This is a myth. A survey of voting-age citizens in Arizona, which passed taxpayer-financing of elections in 1998 and is cited by proponents as the model for their proposal, found that only 11 percent believed that taxpayer financing diminished the influence of special interest groups. Additionally, only 21 percent said that taxpayer financing increased their confidence in state government.

Moreover, political scientists Jeffrey Milyo and David Primo found that taxpayer financing can actually decrease confidence in government. They found that taxpayer financing has "a statistically negative effect on public views about whether 'people have a say' in their government or whether 'officials care.'"

Nor will taxpayer financing guarantee a well-governed state. In fact, Governing magazine recently found that Virginia, the state with the least campaign finance regulations, is the best governed state in the nation.

Instead of a system where voters can hold their lawmakers accountable, taxpayer-subsidized elections result in more entrenched lawmakers that are even more difficult to compete against. In Arizona, incumbent re-election rates rose after taxpayer financing was enacted and the number of candidates fell after taxpayer financing was put in place.

If the current proposal becomes law in Alaska, incumbents will be given an almost insurmountable advantage over challengers. The proposal allows a gubernatorial ticket to spend just $500,000, well under the amount that both tickets spent in the highly competitive 2006 election. Instead of creating a level playing field, such low spending limits give significant advantages to the incumbent.

Political scientist Pamela Carriveau observes that an "incumbent doesn't need to spend a lot of money." Rather, it is the amount of money spent by a challenger in an election that is more telling. This proposal would cut off the amount of money a challenger can spend so that they can not compete against the incumbent.

Proponents of the proposal also highlight that taxpayer-financed elections will "slow the escalating costs of elections." In Arizona, though, candidate spending increased substantially. The average House candidate spent 55 percent more and the typical senate candidate spent 80 percent more money after their "clean" election law was passed.

Candidates spend money on elections to educate voters about their positions on issues. Some ads may be annoying or aggravating, but almost all of them convey information that voters use to judge candidates. By limiting the amount of money that can be spent by campaigns, "clean" election advocates are reducing the amount of information available to voters.

Alaskans should be justifiably outraged that some of their elected officials were apparently willing to betray the public trust by accepting bribes. But this scandal has nothing to do with campaign contributions or spending, and it is outrageous that some are trying to take advantage of the scandal to push an agenda that will increase the advantages of incumbency, provide taxpayer subsidies to politicians, and reduce the ability of candidates to communicate with voters.

"Clean elections" promises riches but delivers worse than nothing. It is the ultimate fool's gold.

• Sean Parnell is president at the Center for Competitive Politics in Arlington, Va. He is not related to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell.

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