Summary of Clean Election Laws: wins, losses, and questions about Wikipedia

I was reading the Wikipedia article on Clean Elections, with the hope of deepening my knowledge and writing a summary article. What I learned, in short, is that many states and jurisdictions have passed various forms of Clean Election laws, but both the Courts and the citizens themselves have rolled back the laws in some cases. What most struck me about the Wikipedia article, though, is its apparent bias, in the section on the effectiveness of the laws.

In the first part of this summary, I’ll quote with modifications from the Wikipedia article. At the end of the summary I’ll present evidence of bias.

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
(so called “rescue funds”).


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

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.[12] 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.


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 January 15, 2010, the United States District Court for the District of Arizona issued a proposed order in McComish v. Bennett[3] finding portions of the Arizona plan unconstitutional.[4] This decision was reversed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May, 2010, but on June 8, 2010 the Supreme Court stayed the Ninth Circuit order and prohibited the disbursement of funds under Arizona’s law. [5] On Nov. 29, 2010, the Court announced that it will review the constitutionality of the matching funds provisions of the statute.[6]

Additionally, the 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 repealed by voters in a 2010 referendum.[7] 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%.[8] 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,.[9]

Effectiveness, questions about the balance of the Wikipedia article

The Wikipedia article about Clean Elections has a section on the effectiveness of such laws.  If you can believe the article, there is mixed evidence about whether clean election laws have increased diversity and reduced incumbency.

However, there is reason to question the balance (fairness) of the material in the Wikipedia article.  The article states, “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 ([2]), reducing government spending (in fact in both states government spending grew more rapidly after the enactment of clean elections) ([3]), or meeting most other stated objectives, including increasing competition or voter participation. ([4]).”

But according to the About Us page of Center for Competitive Politics, “Our mission is to promote and defend citizens’ First Amendment political rights of speech, assembly, and petition. This means opposing so-called reformers’ efforts to limit campaign contributions, taxpayer funded political campaigns, the ‘fairness doctrine’ in talk radio and other limits on citizens’ ability to support the candidates and causes of their choice.”  Hardly non-partisan, in my opinion.

As Craig Salins of WashClean (Washington Public Campaigns) said when I brought this topic to his attention, calling the Center for Competitive Politics “non-partisan” is like calling Tim Eyman “non-partisan”.

Furthermore, who says that “reducing government spending” is a worthy goal? In some instances, we need more government spending.

This shows to go you that you can’t always trust Wikipedia and, moreover, that it’s our obligation to edit Wikipedia articles so that they fairly present both the facts and our side of the issues. 

By the way, I have no idea how such wiki-editing can be successfully accomplished for articles that involve controversial topics (politics and religion, for example).   There are well-funded right wing (and left wing) think tanks competing to edit the material. What’s to prevent competing editors from editing away each others’ changes? I know Wikipedia has policies about “locking down” some articles to prevent spam and thrashing. That implies that somebody has the authority to edit the article. Who decides?

Someone should do a study of Wikipedia and other online wiki sources to gauge for bias. Are there enough left wing think tanks to compete with the right wing ones funded by the likes of the Koch brothers?

Craig Salins and I will contact national Clean Elections groups and the Brennan Center at NYU Law School to solicit their help in editing the Wikipedia articles. I will write a follow-up piece reporting their conclusions and actions.


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