Connecticut Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. recently declared that "public financing is the cornerstone of election reform." Thomas Jefferson disagrees. So do I.
It's unfortunate to hear so many elected officials react to recent political scandals in Connecticut by calling for taxpayers to fund political campaigns. One state that has been considered a model for such reform is Arizona. Speaking from firsthand experience, I must warn residents of Connecticut: Moving from a traditional system of financing campaigns to a system where tax dollars pay for political campaigns doesn't deliver the laudable goals that proponents of such a system promise.
Connecticut taxpayers should ask themselves if their tax dollars should be used for political welfare. During Arizona's 2002 election cycle, nearly $13 million was given to Arizona politicians to finance their political campaigns. In Connecticut, estimates range between $10 million and $20 million per year for taxpayers to pay for politicians' campaigns. Should taxpayers really have to subsidize political candidates or ideas with which they may disagree? According to Thomas Jefferson, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."
Over the past several years, Arizona politicians have spent taxpayer money in increasingly outlandish ways. Three Libertarian Party candidates hosted voter-registration parties at chic night clubs and upscale restaurants, often outside of their district. One candidate paid thousands of dollars to her mother to help on her campaign. Of course, tax revenues are often misused, so why would we expect taxpayer-funded political campaigns to be any different?
Further, statistics show that Arizona's system, known as Clean Elections, has not significantly affected voter participation. A 2003 Government Accounting Office study of the Arizona campaign finance system found that the system's goal of increasing voter participation was not achieved. The GAO concluded that voter turnout in Arizona's 2000 election "did not significantly differ from prior presidential election years," when campaigns were not taxpayer-subsidized.
Likewise, taxpayer-funded political campaigns have not significantly increased candidate participation. In 1998, the last election before the start of Arizona's taxpayer-funded system, there were 199 legislative candidates. That total has been exceeded just once in the past three statewide elections. In 2004, there were fewer legislative candidates than in 2002.
Campaign reform advocates in Arizona also claim that Arizona's Clean Elections system increases the number of female political candidates. The numbers show otherwise. In 1998, there were 31 female candidates for the Arizona legislature. That total has not been matched since implementation of the taxpayer-financed system. Ironically, Arizona made national news in 1998 when the five top statewide elected officials were all female. Currently, there are only two.
Despite proponents' claims to the contrary, a taxpayer-financed political system will not remove unwanted influences or special interest groups. In Arizona, unions and other special interests still flex their muscles by acquiring the thousands of necessary qualifying signatures and $5 contributions for politicians seeking statewide office. However, under the Clean Elections system, such political back-scratching does not appear in any finance report and is not subject to public scrutiny.
Most important, a 2001 Goldwater Institute analysis of legislative voting records shows that regardless of the source of individual campaign contributions, voting still breaks down along party lines.
When the debate about whether taxpayers should finance political campaigns heats up this legislative session, Connecticut voters should ask whether the millions of dollars that will be used by politicians to fund political campaigns could be better spent elsewhere.