Clean Elections: worse than ‘welfare for politicians’

Voters cast their votes in Bangor in November 2014. Brian Feulner | BDN

Voters cast their votes in Bangor in November 2014. Brian Feulner | BDN

There are many problems with Maine’s Clean Elections system as it is currently constituted, but rather than address these fundamental flaws, we are being presented this fall with the option to increase funding for the program. As usual, liberals propose an increase in funding instead of reforming or eliminating a failing program. Of course, they are vague about exactly where this pile of magic money for more campaign signs will come from; their proposal calls on the Legislature to identify and eliminate under-performing corporate tax breaks. They should have found a specific funding source and made that part of the initiative directly; that would have been more honest. 

The issue, however, is not that the Clean Elections program doesn’t have enough money. We could set aside any amount of money in the world from the public trough, and it wouldn’t end outside spending on elections. The issue with Maine’s Clean Elections program is that it completely undermines freedom of speech by meddling in the marketplace of ideas. By using taxpayer money to fund political campaigns, Clean Elections forces all of us to to make contributions to candidates. They force us to donate regardless of whether we agree with them, and without regard to quality or ability of the candidates.

Part of freedom of speech is the freedom not to participate. If you choose not to exercise your right to vote, for example, the government should not be able to force you to the polling place (the government also shouldn’t be able to force you to buy health insurance, but that’s another issue). The same should go for campaign donations: We should all be able to choose, on our own, whether to donate to a candidate. The government should not be able to take money from us in the form of taxes and spend it on political campaigns that we may or may not support.

Candidates should have to make the argument to donors on their own about why they’re a wise investment. This is one of the virtues of the free market, both in economics and in democracy. Donors will look at issues and whether they agree with a candidate, but they will also look at that candidate’s viability in the general election — something that Clean Elections completely disregards. Instead, you qualify for Clean Elections funds by raising a certain number of small donations — like gathering signatures, a fairly minimal standard.

Opponents often deride Clean Elections as “welfare for politicians,” but it’s far worse than that. Welfare does have limits, after all, and you can only get it if you qualify — those limits should probably be more strict, but they do exist. Clean Elections doesn’t have any of the limits of welfare: you can qualify for it regardless of your need. There’s no asset test or income limit of any kind at all, so if he was running for Maine state senator instead of president, Donald Trump could qualify for Clean Elections funds, even though he’s a billionaire. With the private system, donors are free to make those decisions on their own. If you decide that you want to donate $100 to Donald Trump’s campaign despite his personal wealth, you’re free to do so.

Rather than forcing political donations out of people, the American people should be trusted to make their own decisions on these issues. If a candidate can’t raise enough money on his or her own to be competitive, the candidate shouldn’t get a government subsidy, and he or she should lose. That’s the nature of democracy, and the power of the marketplace of ideas — and it works just fine without government manipulating it. Our campaign finance system may need more transparency, but it doesn’t need  more taxpayer subsidies.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.