Some states pay for political candidates. Is it worth it?
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of money raised by Roy Gott before receiving state funding.
(NewsNation) — Is Roy Gott worth it?
Maine taxpayers gave around $17,000 to help Gott, an information technology consultant, run as an independent candidate for state representative. Maine is one of 13 states that provides taxpayer dollars to candidates if they raise a certain amount on their own.
Gott raised $900, which qualified him for the $17,000 under the Maine Clean Election Act.
Then on Tuesday, Gott earned 40% of the vote and lost to his Republican competitor, 2,725 to 1,787. Gott returned some unspent funds to the state. But in the end, taxpayers paid around $7 for each of his votes.
“If everybody had to conform to those rules, we could have races where the candidates are advertising and using their campaign funds to better promote why they’re the better candidate, not just to have smear campaigns and bad mouthing the opponent, things of that nature,” Gott said.
Gott’s case illustrates the current state of public campaign financing today. Elections are flooded with so much outside campaign cash to the point public dollars often don’t make much of a difference. Many candidates don’t even take it anymore.
But public financing does do something else. It gets people to run for office who would otherwise have declined the opportunity, according to a recent study published in State Politics & Policy Quarterly.
Is that reason enough for states to offer the money?
The case for public financing
“(It) gives candidates a really good start to get their palm cards purchased, to buy their signs, to potentially do a mailing to voters in the district, or whatever the case may be,” said Maine Democratic state Rep. Lori Gramlich, who has utilized Maine’s Clean Election Act for years.
The way Maine’s public financing system works, a candidate has to obtain a qualifying number of $5 contributions — 60 for state House candidates, 125 for the state Senate and 3,200 for gubernatorial candidates — to gain access to the system.
They also must agree not to raise or spend private money.
The amount of money the state will give the candidates varies based on whether the election is in the primary or general phase and whether the race is contested. But in the case of a House candidate in a contested general election race, they qualify for $5,475 from the state.
Candidates can also raise additional amounts of money from the state if they continue to bring in additional qualifying contributions from Mainers.
Before he sought state funding, Gott raised $780 on his own. Then he raised the $900 that got him his state funding by getting 180 $5 contributions.
“It’s easy for people to contribute $5, where I wouldn’t be comfortable, particularly with costs rising across the board, to ask people to contribute larger amounts,” Gott said.
This was Gott’s first run for statehouse. He got involved in public service by serving on his local school board in 2012 and has been serving ever since. He applied that small-town civic ethos to his run for state House.
“Polarization hurts everyone. Digging in your heels and refusing to compromise doesn’t accomplish anything,” he states on his website.
“The experience wasn’t bad, though I’m not super comfortable with going door-to-door, introducing myself to people to ask them to vote for me. I am not a fan of public speaking, so the whole process and end goal was going to put me out of my comfort zone in the first place,” he acknowledged.
However, the Maine Clean Election Act, also known as MCEA, made the process of collecting campaign cash easier for him.
“I am definitely an individual who doesn’t like to rely on others and so the MCEA makes it easier to fund a campaign,” he said.
Maine’s public financing system has been in place since 2000. To Gramlich, the system also enables her to feel less beholden to private donors. She recounted what she tells the classes she teaches at the University of Southern Maine.
“I tell my students all the time, If I say to you I’m going to give you $1,500 for whatever, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you,’ and then in a month I say, ‘Hey … I have a favor to ask of you’ … human nature is such that it’s going to be very difficult for you to turn me down, because I’ve just given you $1,500,” she said.
The case against public financing
Gott’s opponent, GOP state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, views the MCEA as wasting public funds. Official state figures show that Maine paid out $6.3 million to candidates using the MCEA in 2018.
For comparison, the state spent just over $8 billion in the 2018 fiscal year.
“We’ve got people that are struggling to fill their oil tanks, seniors and people on fixed income that are going to have trouble filling up one of their first oil barrels, let alone keeping themselves going through the winter, and these Clean Elections candidates get ($17,000) in taxpayer money,” Faulkingham said during a League of Women Voters forum in October.
Faulkingham chose not to use the public financing system, instead spending just over $20,000 in private contributions on the race.
What’s more, what can $6 million in state campaign dollars do in a system awash in cash? Campaign spending on state races nationwide will get close to $8 billion this midterm, according to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign finance.
In Maine, both gubernatorial candidates opted out of public financing to spend millions on their campaigns. The governor’s race is expected to be the most expensive in Maine history.
Many candidates in Maine and other states don’t even use the system, in part because it keeps them from getting the outside campaign donations.
The 55 percent of legislative candidates who used the system in 2020 represents a steep decline from the 81 percent who used it in 2008. However, statistics provided to NewsNation from the Maine Ethics Commission show that this year, 57 percent of House candidates utilized the MCEA and 75 percent of Senate candidates used it.
In other states, even fewer candidates use the system. In Hawaii, just 5 percent of the candidates who ran in 2020 used their system.
“Unfortunately I think the way it’s designed, at least in my state, it seems designed to almost be too daunting to use,” said Hawaii Democratic state Rep. Matthew S. LoPresti, who participates in public financing on principle but thinks the system should be overhauled to be more robust.
This may be because the funding is too meager. The state uses a formula to determine how much money they will match for each candidate. It often means they give a few thousand dollars to anyone who participates.
More candidates, more voices?
Gott lost his election. But that’s not always the case for public-financing candidates. In 2020, 59 percent of Maine candidates who used public funding won their races.
“One of the biggest barriers to running for office is not so much the funding itself,” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine. “But the idea of spending all of this time and energy raising money, right, and that turns off a lot of candidates.”
“Public financing can help make running for office more widely accessible, but it is not a panacea,” Brewer said.
Gott, meanwhile, believes so strongly in Maine’s system that he believes it should be mandatory.
“So to me, it’s frustrating to see so much money just wasted on TV ads, internet ads, radio ads, print ads that it’s … a constant barrage of negativity instead of actually being informative about what the candidate believes, what the candidate has done and so forth.”
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