Campaign Promises Vs. Reality: Taxpayer Financed Elections Edition

Scott Blackburn Senior Research Analyst, Institute for Free Speech
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Harvard Professor Larry Lessig says he is running for president in order to “save democracy.” How? He proposes a bill no one has read — because it hasn’t even been written — that he calls “The Citizen Equality Act of 2017.” The legislation, if we can call it that, exists only as a three-paragraph collection of talking points with general references to other proposals that, with tweaks, might eventually comprise a piece of legislation.

Since it doesn’t actually exist, it is hard to say exactly what voters would get from this legislation. But Lessig says his solution will be based on the “American Anti-Corruption Act,” an outline for a bill by the group Represent.US, and the “Government by the People Act,” championed by Rep. John Sarbanes. If you examine these measures, a picture begins to emerge of what will supposedly “save democracy.”

This legislation would apparently give every registered voter $100 to contribute to any federal candidate, political party or PAC that refuses to accept donations above $500 per election. Then, to encourage giving to candidates instead of parties or citizen groups, more tax funds would match donations to candidates at a rate of six to nine new tax dollars for every dollar collected by the politicians from the money previously handed out to voters.

With these large government subsidies being handed out to politicians, any bill that becomes law is likely to have a rigorous “enforcement regime.” Such regimes, as shown by experience in New York City and Vermont, give bureaucrats frightening new powers to interfere with the choices of voters and harass innocent citizens by alleging fraud or other violations of the law. Given the political targeting that happened recently at the IRS, not to mention the likes of former President Nixon, why would we want to do that?

The scheme is also an open invitation to corruption and fraud on a massive scale. Such a law would generate a cottage industry wherein “bundlers” and organizations would collect contribution vouchers from voters, and “buy influence” with candidates in that fashion.

Buying a vote in this country is incredibly difficult, but how many Americans would be willing to sell their $100 government voucher for two or three crisp $20 bills? Meanwhile incumbent politicians in safe seats would have a new, taxpayer-financed slush fund. Currently, when incumbents “campaign” by buying meals, travel, and swag, they do so using private funds. Change to a voucher scheme, and suddenly taxpayers are footing the bill for all these expenses.

Giving such a huge advantage to candidate fundraising would make political parties, traditionally forces for moderation in Congress far weaker and perhaps nearly irrelevant to candidate entrepreneurs. It’s hard to say where exactly this might lead, but many political scientists say that weakened political parties have led to sharply increased polarization and gridlock in Congress.

Supposedly, all of this would reduce the influence of big donors and Super PACs. But if we have learned anything from forty years of campaign finance tinkering, it’s that people who want to speak will do so – somehow, some way. The program won’t stop independent groups from spending hundreds of millions of dollars through Super PACs. It won’t stop celebrities from campaigning. It won’t reduce the influence of the news media, and it could lead to an even more polarized and partisan news media as big donors try to gain influence on campaigns and policy by buying media companies.

In short, the measure could be a huge political science experiment conducted on a massive scale, with many unplanned consequences and many possible catastrophic outcomes.

There is little evidence that all this does any good. In states that have tax financing schemes, there is no greater representation of women in state legislatures, there are just as many white lawyers and businessmen elected to office, and there are just as many corrupt and corruptible politicians as before. What such machinations actually produce are merely new forms of influence, dictatorial government bureaucrats on regulatory boards, and less tax revenue in government coffers – not exactly a picturesque utopia.

Perhaps Professor Lessig has all of this worked out. Perhaps, as he claims, he really has “hacked” democracy, and none of these problems will actually show up in the “Citizen Equality Act.” If so, then the American people deserve to see more than just bold promises – actual legislation, and some proof it will work, would be a good start. The truth is that this proposal is like so many past campaign promises: full of hyperbole, but destined for failure.

Scott Blackburn is a Research Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics