Commentary

Do Clean Elections Increase Competitiveness? Research Says Probably Not

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The debate over Question 1’s tweaking of the Maine Clean Elections Act (MCEA) has largely turned into a debate over the merits of the Act itself, with proponents claiming that it is necessary to increase competitiveness in elections, and opponents calling it welfare for politicians.

One of the key benefits touted by clean elections advocates is that the MCEA would increase competitiveness in elections.  However, the research done on clean elections in the last 15 years has not only failed to demonstrate that they have succeeded in that goal, but actually suggest that the MCEA has had no significant effect on competitiveness in Maine elections.

The research on such clean elections is extremely limited and largely focused on the first few election cycles after MCEA was enacted.  Although several states offer partial funding, only Maine and Arizona have offered comprehensive publicly funded campaigns over the last 15 years.  Therefore, there are only a few studies that only look at systems with comprehensive public financing.

For instance, a study by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2003 was unable to find any significant improvements in competitiveness under the first few few years of clean elections.  The study’s authors noted, however, that there simply wasn’t enough data at the time to make any causal links between the clean elections and their results.

A study produced by Stanford covering the same period of time as the GAO report found weak results for competitiveness.  Measuring competitiveness by the margin of votes in an election, the Stanford study found no statistically significant effect from public financing in open-seat districts.  In races with an incumbent, however, the author found that the margin of votes actually decreased.  The author notes that this finding may be the result of previous office-holders taking advantage of public financing to run against incumbents.  In other words, the challengers in this study aren’t necessarily average Mainers entering politics for the first time, but rather individuals who have been in government before running again.

This could possibly be the result of term limits in Maine, which prevent lawmakers from holding the same seat indefinitely.  As term limits force lawmakers to give up their seat, they often choose to run for a different legislative body, a la John Martin.  This explanation is given weight by informal number crunching by The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s CEO, Matthew Gagnon.  Gagnon found that after MCEA was implemented in 2000, the collective legislative experience of elected lawmakers drastically increased.  While this is hardly conclusive, it does suggest that MCEA is not drawing new people into politics, but helping career politicians stay in the legislature longer.

Both the GAO and the Stanford study, unfortunately, were looking at a very narrow slice of data, making it difficult to draw any conclusive results.  As the GAO report noted, the “results of this analysis should be interpreted with caution, given the relatively few variables we used and the limited amount of data available.”  For a clearer picture of MCEA’s real effect, it’s necessary to look at larger sets of data.

In 2010, the GAO updated and expanded their study with the increased election data available through 2008. They found that “while there was some evidence of statistically significant changes in one of the five goals of Maine’s and Arizona’s public financing programs, we could not directly attribute these changes to the programs, nor did we find significant changes in the remaining four goals after program implementation.”

The updated GAO report, similarly to the Stanford study, also found a decrease in the margin of victory under clean elections.  The GAO report could not causally link this result to MCEA, however, due to limited data and factors that could not be quantified.

Even after 8 years of watching the MCEA in action, they could not definitively say that the law had achieved any significant results.

The final study on the impact of clean elections on competitiveness comes from Richard J. Powell of the University of Maine.  Unlike the previous studies, Powell focused solely on MCEA, comparing data from 1994 through 2008.  Similar to the GAO and Stanford reports, Powell also found a slight decrease in the margin of victory, but acknowledged that the finding was statistically insignificant.  More damning, Powell found that incumbent reelection rates remain unchanged under MCEA.  According to Powell, incumbents were actually more likely to win reelection if they accepted public financing.

“In sum, my study found that MCEA has not had a significant impact on increasing electoral competition for the Maine Legislature,” writes Powell.

Although the subject has received little attention over the past 15 years, the research that has been done is damning for proponents of MCEA.  Studies show little to no real effect of MCEA on competitiveness in Maine elections.  While advocates can assert that MCEA has made Maine elections more competitive, they have to admit that they have no data to back up their claim.

After almost 15 years of throwing taxpayer money at our campaigns, it’s time to admit that MCEA has failed.

 

About Nathan Strout

Nathan Strout is a Development Associate with The Maine Heritage Policy Center as well as a staff writer for The Maine Wire. Born and raised in Portland, Strout is a graduate of Eastern University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Legal Studies.

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