Maine’s ‘Clean’ Elections Are Not More Competitive

  • Related Content

Although it’s a state of modest size and influence, Maine finds itself on the cutting edge of the national movement to restructure campaign finance through the taxpayer financing of political candidates. And, so far, the results don’t look good.

While enhanced electoral competition has been predicted as a result of so‐​called “Clean Election” reforms, the evidence for Maine implies the opposite. Rather than making incumbents more vulnerable to challenge, the Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA) has helped to entrench incumbents, diminishing electoral competition. Based on these findings, other states should be extremely skeptical of the Clean Election alternative.

On Nov. 5, 1996, Maine voters passed the MCEA by ballot initiative. That was the first piece of state or federal legislation to offer taxpayer financing to state‐​level candidates who voluntarily accept spending limits and refuse private contributions.

The legislation applied to Senate and House candidates beginning with the 2000 primary and general election campaigns. Therefore, November 2000’s voting was the first test of this new campaign finance system, and the Maine legislature sworn in on Dec. 6, 2000, comprised the first set of elected officials chosen under this system.

Our analysis of the results of the 1998 and 2000 Maine state elections shows that the adoption of taxpayer financing for the 2000 election did not result in a substantially more competitive election than occurred under private funding in 1998. Comparison of districts that had clean candidates in 2000 with those that did not indicates that the “clean” districts displayed no improvement on two of three dimensions of electoral competitiveness, and actually performed far worse on a third.

Specifically, “clean” districts exhibited no difference in victory margins or in “contentedness” — the frequency with which candidates were unopposed — relative to “non‐​clean” districts. However, in the case of openness — the tendency of incumbents to run — “clean” districts were far more likely to have incumbents running in 2000, and far more likely to have switched from an open race in 1998 to one in which an incumbent was running in 2000. Therefore, an empirical analysis of the 2000 Maine election supports the following conclusions:

  • The overall average margin of victory in both Senate and House races declined by a statistically insignificant margin.
  • Races in open seats that featured taxpayer‐​financed candidates do not clearly show that taxpayer financing leads to more competitive elections.
  • Despite limits on campaign spending by incumbents, the advantages of holding office were almost impossible to overcome. Most victorious Clean Election candidates were incumbents and almost all incumbent Clean Election candidates retained their seats. The limits on House incumbent spending under taxpayer financing did not reduce their margins of victory. A comparison of the average margin of victory of the Clean Election House incumbents in 2000 and those same incumbents’ average margin of victory in 1998 found no statistically significant improvement in competitiveness.
  • Term limits were relatively effective at opening up the state’s electoral process to greater competition. Newly competitive seats benefited more from the introduction of term limits than from the introduction of taxpayer financing.
  • Under a system of taxpayer financing, the number of contested primaries rose only marginally from 1998 and remained well below the level of prior, privately funded elections.
  • The lure of subsidized campaigning did not attract a substantial number of independent and minor party candidates.

The Maine experiment offers few benefits for a scheme largely funded by taxpayers. Maine’s lesson for other states and for national politicians is that a government trying to foster more competitive elections through taxpayer financing will be disappointed with the results while taxpayers will be discomforted by the costs.

Patrick Basham and Martin Zelder

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute. Martin Zelder is an economist and senior associate at Boston‐​based Analysis Group Economics.