Just the Facts: Arizona Clean Elections Hasn't Caused Extremism
Since 2000, hundreds of candidates in Arizona—from the legislature to governor’s mansion—have been elected under the state’s Clean Elections program. It allows candidates to run for office on a blend of small $5 donations and public funds.
Opponents of the system—including some big donors who lost clout after it went into effect—have repeatedly tried to tie Clean Elections to extremism whenever a local politician embarrasses the state. It's an argument you can only make if you ignore the facts.
The issue came up again this week in an interesting interview with Barnard College Professor Michael G. Miller, author of the book Subsidizing Democracy, about the Arizona system. The reporter, Andrew Prokop, specifically asked Miller about the extremism charge.
Here’s the exchange (emphasis added):
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.
In other words, Arizona’s just conservative. Clean Elections isn’t to blame.
What is true is that due to a series of court decisions and the failure of the legislature to respond by updating the law, candidates have used the Clean Elections program less frequently in recent election cycles. However, the system and similar programs in Connecticut, Maine, and New York City and those suggested federally in bills like the Government By the People Act and Fair Elections Now Act, should be seen as critical to pushing back against a political world increasingly dominated by big money donors.