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After Arizona passed public financing, politicians spent more time with voters

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In 1998, Arizona voters approved a historic overhaul of the state's campaign finance system. Under the Clean Elections Act, candidates for office are granted sizable public subsidies as long as they don't raise other money and abide by overall spending limits. Though reformers hoped this would help get money out of politics, some have argued that public financing could actually lead to increased polarization and dysfunction.

Michael G. Miller, a political science professor at Barnard College, and author of the book Subsidizing Democracy, surveyed over 1,000 candidates for office in states with public financing systems about their experience. I talked with him last year about what's happened in Arizona, and about his overall findings, below.

Andrew Prokop: How did the Arizona Clean Elections Law come about?

Michael G. Miller: There was a movement arising in the late 1990s that was largely in response to the AzScam scandal earlier in the decade, in which a number of Arizona legislators were either indicted or convicted for bribery charges involving casinos. There were gaming bills up and the legislators were effectively selling their votes. So, there was a huge scandal in the state, which led to this Clean Elections Act being proposed for the 1998 ballot. A lot of people saw it as a way to take money out of politics. The name of the bill, Clean Elections, was pretty ingenious, because who’s going to vote against Clean Elections? A lot of voters may not fully have known what they were voting for, but they liked the sound of Clean Elections, particularly in the wake of AzScam.

Andrew Prokop: And what does the law actually entail?

Michael G. Miller: As originally passed, the bill would provide candidates for state office effectively with full public funding, so that they could have all the money that they needed from the public treasury— effectively eliminating private donations from the game. So, for example, if you were to run for Arizona House in the 2000 election, you first had to convince 210 people in your district to give you $5, exactly $5. That was the qualifying threshold. And it’s actually quite hard to do, candidates will complain about the difficulties associated with raising what they call those "fives," they call them.

So. once you do that, you become eligible to receive public funding. In 2000, that amounted to a subsidy of $25,000, which was considered enough to run a viable campaign to run for Arizona statehouse. That subsidy has grown with time to reflect inflation. But for candidates running in these circumstances, when they accept these subsidies, they agree not to raise any more money from private sources, they agree not to spend more than the Clean Elections ceiling, and they agree not to bring any more of their money in. So once they receive these subsidies, effectively, it’s game over for fundraising, and private money — be it from donors, or PACs, or whoever — is eliminated from the list of things they’re allowed to solicit.

Andrew Prokop: Now, there was a US Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that struck down part of the law. What had to change?

Michael G. Miller: As originally designed, if a Clean Elections candidate were to run against a candidate who opted out of the program, and the the traditional candidate exceeded the Clean Elections subsidy in spending, the state of Arizona would issue the publicly funded candidate "matching fund" checks, locking the candidates in financial parity up to three times the original limit. So in 2000, you would’ve had to spend more than $75,000 as a nonparticipating candidate to outspend the Clean Elections candidate.

In 2011, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett and McCormish v. Bennett, the Supreme Court struck that down. The rationale for that decision was, if a traditional candidate runs against a Clean Elections candidate, the traditional candidate's incentive is to not spend because you are, in the words of candidates that I interviewed in my book, "feeding the alligator trying to eat me." So there was a First Amendment challenge brought, the argument was that, as applied, the matching funds provisions chilled the speech of nonparticipating candidates. And the Supreme Court agreed with that.

Andrew Prokop: You wrote a book, Subsidizing Democracy, that analyzed how public financing has worked in Arizona and other states. What did you find?

Michael G. Miller: The book examined how public funding changes the behavior and emotions and strategy of candidates that are in these elections. Connecticut and Maine have very similar programs, so I did survey work and interviews with candidates Arizona, but also in those other two states. I looked at candidates in Hawaii, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, which at the time had different kinds of smaller, partial public funding. I really worked with these folks in-depth to determine how they were using their time, their attributes, their qualifications, and their strategic consideration.

One of my findings was that candidates who accept these subsidies are much more likely to interact with voters on a weekly basis, to the tune of about 5 hours. The reason for that is they don’t have to raise money. So the time they would’ve spent raising money is directly reinvested into voter engagement. So they’re doing a lot more knocking on doors, they’re doing a lot more meetings with interest groups, interviews with media, speeches, things like that. So they’re more visible. And over the course of a 30 week campaign, 5 hours a week really adds up. You’re talking about hundreds or thousands of interactions with voters that would not have occurred in the absence of public funding. That's one argument in the book.

A second finding is, if these candidates are more visible, I’m more likely as a voter to see somebody on my stoop having a conversation with me, I might be more likely to vote. And that’s what I find. I find about a reduction of 20 percent in rolloff. So that is, people who show up to vote for, say, president in 2008, and then stop voting when they get to the statehouse races — that more people stick around and vote in those downballot elections. Presumably that's because they have seen these candidates, they’ve had these interactions with them. So you get more participation among the electorate.

Another of my findings is that it’s easier for so-called average people who may not have run for office to hit the ground with a really impactful, what political scientists would call "high-quality," campaign. And the reason is because they have money. Say you’re a teacher or a plumber, or somebody else who’s never run for office before. It’s hard to build those connections and relationships [that are necessary for high-dollar fundraising]. These subsidies — the term I use in the book is that they "manufacture" quality challengers. And political scientists found that incumbents still usually win, but they win by smaller amounts. So you get elections that are a little more competitive, and I think one of the reasons for that is you’re allowing average folks to command the resources commensurate with a strong campaign.

Finally, there’s a chapter in the book about the objections that conservative candidates have to [using public funds for their campaigns]. And you really do see disproportionate participation between Democrats and Republicans, largely based on comfort level with the utilization of public money for this purpose.

Andrew Prokop:What are the differences between the various public financing programs that exist in the US?

Michael G. Miller: Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut all fund state candidates pretty broadly. The differences between their systems are pretty esoteric. There used to be differences in matching funds allocations but those are gone now.

One major difference of Arizona's is the way it's funded. Arizona’s unique in that it’s not supposed to appropriate money from its general fund, so it uses fees assessed on speeding tickets and other civil actions. So in theory, it’s not tax dollars. Although conservatives will argue that anytime a dollar leaves your pocket and goes to government it’s a tax — that it’s a matter of semantics. But it’s unique in that way. My advice would be not to get caught speeding in Arizona, because there is that charge.

Andrew Prokop: What’s your impression about how this changed politics in Arizona, broadly? How did it change governance and the functioning of the legislature? Did things become more ideological?

Michael G. Miller: There are several papers right now that trying to suss that question out. One argument is that if you don’t have to raise money in the private marketplace of campaign finance, you can be a really extreme candidate. You hear these stories in Arizona of really far-right candidates going to one of those big churches and putting their qualifications packet in the offering plate and passing it around and getting their "fives" in twenty minutes. Then they can go — they don’t have to worry about how they'll get donations despite extreme views.

So the argument is that these public funding candidates are more ideologically extreme than candidates who have to raise money from private donors. But a paper I have with Seth Masket [from the University of Denver] finds effectively no difference in the ideological position between the two groups of candidates.

We are at odds with another paper by Andrew Hall, a graduate student at Harvard, who is reporting more extreme candidates. [NOTE: Hall's paper also argues that states that adopted public funding subsequently became more polarized than states that did not.] It’s an unresolved question, but I believe my paper more than other papers out there right now.

Andrew Prokop: Arizona’s legislature last made national news for adopting a tough anti-illegal immigration law in 2010. Would you say that the public financing system made that more likely to pass? Support for loosening immigration laws is more widespread among business interests, and under public financing, the support of business may be less important to candidates.

Michael G. Miller: I think that theory’s plausible, but I just don’t see it in the data, and I always follow the data. So what I have found in my work is that there’s no relationship between accepting public funding and taking more extreme positions. As I said, the narrative has always seemed plausible to me, and I actually was a little surprised when we found no relationship. But I just don’t see it in the data. You've got to bear in mind, Arizona’s still a really unique place politically, they have a strong strain of libertarianism running through the right side of their politics. It’s a very perceptible tinge of American conservatism. Barry Goldwater’s alive and well in his home state.

I think there’s a temptation to look for these explanations when we see extreme politics happening in a place, but I think it really is as simple as — if you look at the dynamics of the state, it is kinda a microcosm of America in many ways and you see same kinds of things happening there as you do in the United States Congress. And there’s no public funding in the United States Congress. So I think, we tend to go on these hunts for explanations, when it just ends up being the way things are due to political history, culture, or larger dynamics.

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