Public financing of elections is once again on the table in New York state. This time the call comes from New York state's Moreland Commission, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to "restore the public trust" in the wake of continued corruption problems in the state.
In a 98-page report released last week, the commission calls for a public financing system modeled after New York City's, under which candidates receive matching government funds for small private donations they receive (seven of 25 members dissented).
The commission, parroting earlier claims by Cuomo, is clear about the benefits. In combination with other reform proposals, such as lower contribution limits, public financing would help restore faith in government, reduce corruption, and "invigorate citizens' democratic participation."
These claims represent a wish list, and a reality check is in order.
We have conducted some of the only research that subjects these claims to statistical scrutiny. In a 2006 study, we examined whether state campaign finance rules affect perceptions of government, specifically "political efficacy" — the sense that ordinary people can influence political outcomes.
We compared whether people in states with restrictive campaign finance laws have higher levels of efficacy than people in states with few or no limits on campaign financing. Our study detected that public financing may have a small negative effect on perceptions of government (though we wouldn't make too much of this finding, since the effect is substantively small).
Research by Milyo finds no evidence that citizen perceptions are improved.
Maybe for New York state the concern should be actual corruption. Research by Milyo and Adriana Cordis finds no evidence that corruption, measured by public corruption convictions, is reduced by public financing.
As for voter apathy, having politicians pestering you for contributions may not be a way to revitalize your interest in politics. Our research with Matthew Jacobsmeier finds no evidence that states with so-called "clean elections" programs in place have higher turnout in statewide elections.
Supporters of public financing do make one plausible claim: that the proposal will increase the number of individuals contributing to campaigns. This shouldn't be surprising; when you subsidize something you get more of it.
The real question for policymakers is whether it is worth spending millions of dollars each year to subsidize contributions to campaigns. That's all the commission's plan is likely to accomplish.
The commission appears to admit as much, despite the claims made elsewhere in its report: "Public financing is no panacea. No law can stop wealthy interests and individuals from exercising influence over elections and government. No law can prevent unethical individuals from holding office or stop an elected official from succumbing to temptation. What campaign finance laws can do is ... create a countervailing force of small donors to offset the impact of big money."
Let's have a debate about whether increasing small donor involvement in the political process as a "countervailing force" is a worthy cause given the cost. It would be useful to stop thinking about "big" and "small" donors as monoliths that can somehow be balanced against one another.
As the Moreland Commission continues, we implore politicians and reform groups to stop the empty rhetoric about restoring trust in government, eliminating corruption, and reinvigorating New Yorkers' interest in politics. The overselling of public financing may have a corrosive effect on politics.