Commentary

Amendment 27 Will Help Keep Incumbents in Office and Challengers Out

Coloradoans will soon be asked to accept or reject Amendment 27 to the state constitution. Amendment 27 would impose several new regulations on campaign finance, including lower contribution limits for political action committees and limits on the sums a political party can give to candidates. Other states have tried similar limits in the past. Coloradoans should know the consequences of those efforts, all of which give incumbents the advantage.

Political scientists have found that weakening the role of parties in campaigns might undermine electoral competition. Here’s why. Parties give to challengers because they want to maximize their share of seats in a legislature. They contribute to challengers in competitive districts if the challengers have a chance of winning. Interest groups, in contrast, often seek influence over policy through lobbying legislators; accordingly, they prefer to give money to incumbents who will likely win and return to the legislature. Limits on party giving — sold to voters as a way to clean up politics — ends up entrenching incumbents and penalizing challengers.

So much for theory, what about reality? Many states have enacted regulations on campaign finance, including limits on how much can be given to political parties. Political scientists Ray LaRaja and Thad Kousser examined the effects of such regulations in 15 states. Based on a sophisticated statistical analysis, they concluded that limits on how much parties can raise and contribute to their nominees hinder the ability of candidates, especially those in close races, to raise money. Moreover, those limits do not penalize incumbents as harshly as they do challengers, because sitting lawmakers can attract more money from interest groups and individual donors. Most critically, these fundraising obstacles reduce challengers’ vote totals.

More evidence comes from the state of Washington. Michael New, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-MIT Data Center, examined the effects of Proposition 134 passed by Washington voters in 1992. That law limited contributions from individuals, political action committees, and political parties. The Washington law is thus quite similar to Amendment 27 in Colorado.

New found that Washington’s limits on contributions reduced the sums spent on campaigns for the state legislature, both overall and in the most expensive races. Contrary to the proponents of such regulation, New also discovered that Washington’s restrictions had hindered electoral competition.

Incumbents were less likely to face either primary or general election challengers after the regulations took effect. In addition, candidates who challenged incumbents during the general election were less likely to win. Overall, campaign regulation had a greater overall effect on races for the Washington state senate than on elections for the state house. That is unsurprising as races for the state senate are more costly than races for the state house.

Like LaRaja and Kousser, New traced part of the decline in competition to the limits on party giving. He noted, “Political parties are the only entities that consistently donate more money to challengers than to incumbents.” Making it hard for parties to give to candidates makes it hard to challenge an incumbent.

If passed, Amendment 27 will likely help incumbents and hurt challengers. Do Coloradoans really want less competition for people in office?

Beyond its consequences, the premises of the amendment are wrong. Gerry Cummins, president of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, has said Amendment 27 is needed because “large campaign contributions continue to play a major role in who wins elected office and the policies they enact once in office.”

Three scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published the most comprehensive and compelling study of the effect of campaign contributions by political action committees on legislative voting. They discovered that once all factors were taken into account, contributions by political action committees had no effect on legislative votes. A legislator’s ideology, political party, and constituent concerns determined their votes on bills.

Does money determine who wins elective office? Certainly winners usually outspend losers. However, winners are usually incumbents. Do contributions cause them to win or do people give to incumbents expecting them to win or because they support the views of the candidate? No scholar has been able to untangle this web of causality. In any case, if Amendment 27 passes, incumbents will be even more likely to win office.

Proponents of Amendment 27 promise political reform. In fact, the amendment will lessen competition, entrench incumbents, and needlessly limit political rights. Is that really progress for Coloradoans?

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.