Clean Elections

Clean Elections

"Clean Elections" (variously called, "Clean Money," "Voter-Owned Elections," or "Fair Elections") is a term used to describe a particular system of government financing of political campaigns, in which the government provides a grant to candidates who agree to limit their and private fundraising efforts and limit their campaign-spending.


In the United States

Clean Election initiatives are used in a small number of states and local political jurisdictions in the United States. Some form of Clean Elections legislation has been adopted by ballot initiative in Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. It was also adopted by legislative action in Connecticut and at the municipal level in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Portland, OR. However, the systems in Massachusetts and Portland were later repealed, while Vermont's was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds.

These laws have increasingly run into constitutional problems in the Courts. Substantial portions of the Vermont system were found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Randall v. Sorrell. Connecticut's statute was held unconstitutional in August, 2009, on grounds that it unfairly discriminated against third party and independent candidates.[1] In July 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld portions of the District court's order but allowed the core program to continue.[2]

On June 27, 2011, ruling in the consolidated cases Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett, the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional the matching-funds provision of the Arizona law.[3] The decision throws similar provisions in Maine, Wisconsin, and elsewhere into doubt. As a result, the Wisconsin legislature eliminated funding for its judicial elections in 2011.

Additionally, voters have defeated clean elections in several recent referendums. In Massachusetts the system was repealed after a 2002 advisory initiative in which voters voted nearly 2 to 1 against using government funds to pay for political campaigns. Portland, Oregon's program was narrowly repealed by voters in a 2010 referendum.[4] In 2008, a Clean Elections bill, the California Fair Elections Act (AB583) passed the California Assembly and Senate and was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger. To take effect, however, the law had to be approved by voters in an initiative in June 2010. On June 8, 2010, California voters defeated the measure by 57% to 43%.[5] An earlier Clean Elections ballot initiative, Proposition 89 was also defeated in California in 2006, by 74% against to 26% in favor. A Clean Elections ballot initiative in Alaska failed by a 64% to 35% margin in August 2008,.[6]

In April 2010, the Colorado Initiative Title Setting Review Board approved the text of a Proposed Initiative #53 on Campaign Finance, and signature gathering began,[7] [8] but the measure failed to qualify for the 2010 ballot.

Additionally, a pilot program adopted by the New Jersey state legislature in 2004 and applying in select legislative districts was abandoned by the legislature after the 2007 state elections.

Under a Clean Elections system, candidates wishing to receive government financing collect a certain number of small "qualifying contributions" (often as little as $5) from registered voters. If they collect enough of these qualifying contributions, they are then paid a flat sum by the government to run their campaigns, and agree not to raise any other money from private sources. Candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents may receive additional public matching funds, but this provision was held to be unconstitutional in the aforementioned Supreme Court decision in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.

Because candidates may refuse government funding and continue to rely on voluntary contributions without spending caps, supporters have argued that Clean Elections measures do not run afoul of the Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo decision, which struck down mandatory spending limits as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech but also affirmed that elections can be publicly financed. However, the Supreme Court's decision in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett has eliminated a key part of Clean Elections laws aimed at encouraging participation.

Comprehensive Clean Elections systems have been in effect in Arizona and Maine since 2000. A majority of candidates accept the grants rather than raise private contributions. In Maine, three quarters of state legislators ran with government subsidies provided by a Clean Elections Program.[9] In Arizona, a majority of the state house[citation needed] and both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Governor ran Clean Elections campaigns in 2006. There has not yet been a statewide election in Maine in which both the Republican and Democratic candidates were financed through the Clean Election System.

Differences from traditional reforms

Clean Elections is a form of campaign finance reform.

Unlike traditional campaign finance laws that focus primarily on placing caps on campaign donations, Clean Elections laws provide a government grant to candidates who agree to limit their spending and private fundraising. Candidates participating in a Clean Elections system are required to meet certain qualification criteria, which usually includes collecting a number of signatures and small contributions (generally determined by statute and set at $5 in both Maine and Arizona) before the candidate can receive public support. In most Clean Elections programs, these qualifying contributions must be given by constituents. To receive the government campaign grant, "Clean Candidates" must agree to forgo all other fundraising and accept no other private or personal funds. Candidates who choose not to participate are subject to limits on their fundraising, typically in the form of limits on the size of contributions they may accept and the sources of those contributions (such as limits on corporate or union contributions), and detailed reporting requirements.

In order to comply with Buckley v. Valeo, participation by candidates is optional. Government financed candidates who are outspent by a privately funded candidate normally receive additional funds (sometimes called "rescue funds") to match their privately funded opponent, up to a cap, with the intent of assuring that a candidate who runs with private funding will not outspend his government funded opponent. This is the provision struck down by the Supreme Court in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.


A 2003 study by the federal government's nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO), requested by Congress as part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law passed in 2002, found that the Clean Elections system had failed to produce measurable benefits in the two election cycles run under the system in both Maine and Arizona. The average number of candidates per district, percentage of contested races, incumbency rates, incumbency victory margins, perceptions of interest group influence among candidates and citizens, and voter participation did not change notably. Campaign spending decreased in Maine but increased in Arizona and independent expenditures increased in both states. 60% of Maine and 37% of Arizona voters were unaware of the public financing program. The study concluded that "with ... only one election from which to observe most statewide races, it is too early to draw causal linkages".[10]

A 2006 study of the 2004 and 2002 campaigns by political scientists Mayer, Werner, and Williams of the University of Wisconsin—Madison argued that the GAO "understate[d] the reforms' impact, in part by making some unusual methodological choices and jettisoning valuable data." They found that the candidate pool and competitiveness increased significantly, while the incumbency rate dropped significantly.[11] A 2007 update, however, found that in the 2006 campaign competitiveness continued to increase slightly but reelection rates "returned to pre-reform levels". The number of at least nominally contested races also continued to increase, reaching 100% in Maine. Mayer, Werner and Williams also found that women were much more likely than men to accept public funding but this had no effect on the gender composition of the legislature.[12] A study by the non-partisan, privately funded Clean Elections Institute[13] found that the number and geographic, economic, and ethnic diversity of campaign contributors increased significantly, with contributors almost quadrupling, contributions from people with incomes below $40,000 increasing by 40% and contributions from Latinos increasing significantly.[14] A 2008 study by the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Competitive Politics concluded that the process of gathering small contributions needed to qualify for public funding still relied heavily on interest groups.[15] Another 2008 study by the Center for Competitive Politics of Clean Elections programs in Maine and Arizona found that neither state had seen a decline in legislators with “traditional” [law and business] backgrounds in the eight years since the campaign laws were first implemented.[16]

Other studies conducted by the nonpartisan Center for Competitive Politics, found that the programs in Maine, Arizona, and New Jersey had failed to accomplish other stated goals, including electing more women ([1]), reducing government spending (in fact in both states government spending grew more rapidly after the enactment of clean elections) ([2]), or meeting most other stated objectives, including increasing competition or voter participation. ([3])

A 2006 study by the non-partisan, libertarian-leaning Goldwater Institute found that "incumbency rates have remained near 100% [while] the number of candidates fell substantially ... from 247 to 195. Moreover, the law has not increased minor or third-party participation in politics, and Arizona campaigns remain every bit as hard-edged." However, according to the Clean Elections Institute, the number of legislative candidates increased from 135 in 1998 ([4]), the last year before Clean Elections, to 188 in 2004, as reported in the Goldwater study—a 40% increase. In 2006 there were 204 legislative candidates ([5]), a 51% increase over the pre-Clean Elections numbers.[17]

In 2008, a study released by the non-partisan, non-profit organization Public Campaign, examined the demographic profile of $5 qualifying contribution donors in Clean Elections gubernatorial campaigns in Arizona over the course of the 2002 and 2006 elections, comparing and contrasting them with contributions raised by candidates running with funding from private sources — more than 67,000 contributions in all. The data were analyzed by zip code alongside U.S. Census data to determine the racial, ethnic, geographic, and economic characteristics of donors. The study, titled All Over The Map, found that Arizona’s qualifying contribution donors are more diverse racially, ethnically, economically, and geographically than donors giving to candidates who choose to rely on private fundraising. In nearly every category, Clean Elections $5 donors were more representative of the state's population than were donors to privately funded campaigns. However, the study has been criticized because it compares donors to Clean Elections only to donors of $200 or more to federal campaigns - in other words, it compared $5 donors under clean elections to $200 donors in federal races, rather than comparing the common universe of all donors, or donors at the same levels of contributions. Federal candidates are not required to report names and addresses of contributors of less than $200 to federal candidates thus the information is not made public.


SB 752, the Fair Elections Now Act, calling for Clean Elections in U.S. senate campaigns, was sponsored in the 111th Congress (2009–10) by Senators: Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (D-PA).[18] A companion bill, H.R. 1826, was introduced in the House, sponsored by John Larson (D-CT), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), and Walter Jones (R-NC). Unlike the Clean Elections laws in Maine and Arizona, H.R. 1826 dids not include the "rescue funds" provision, perhaps due to concern about constitutionality in the wake of the Davis decision. Neither bill moved out of Committee.

Others who have endorsed clean elections include:

  • Barack Obama as an Illinois senator was the first co-sponsor of the 2007 version of the Durbin-Specter bill.[19]

See also

  • Iron triangle
  • Money trail
  • Political finance, section on Regulation


  1. ^ Wall Street Journal[dead link]
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Politico". Politico. 2011-06-27. Retrieved 2011-06-27. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Huffington Post". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  6. ^ "Anchorage Daily News". Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  7. ^ "Proposed Initiative 2009-2010 #53". Ballot Title Setting Board. 
  8. ^ "Clean Campaigns Colorado". 
  9. ^ "Maine Ethics Commission: Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA)". Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  10. ^ Early Experience of Two States that Offer Full Public Funding of Political Campaigns, study by United States Government Accounting Office.
  11. ^ "Do Public Funding Programs Enhance Electoral Competition? | Public Campaign Library". 2004-04-30. Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  12. ^ "Public Election Funding, Competition, and Candidate Gender" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  13. ^ Clean Elections Institute
  14. ^ Reclaiming Democracy in Arizona, study by the Arizona Clean Elections Institute
  15. ^ Study on New Jersey Clean Elections Contributors, by the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP)
  16. ^ Legislative Occupations: Change or Status Quo After Clean Elections?, study by the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP)
  17. ^ Campaign Promises: A Six-Year Review of Arizona's Experiment with Taxpayer-financed Campaigns, study by the Goldwater Institute.
  18. ^ "S. 752: Fair Elections Now Act". Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  19. ^ "April 13, 2009". The Nation. 2009-04-13. Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  20. ^ John Edwards for President-One Democracy Initiative: Returning Washington To Regular People
  21. ^ "Sen. Mccain Embraces Clean Elections In Arizona Big Boost To Public Financing Seen | Public Campaign". Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  22. ^ "Dialing for Clean Dollars". Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  23. ^ “” (2007-12-05). "Candidate Challenge: John McCain". YouTube. Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  24. ^ "Full public financing must be the ultimate goal of our reform effort.", State of the State 2007

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