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interviews

States Are the Laboratories of Democracy

by Michael Miller
December 9, 2020

This interview with Michael MillerAssistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard and author of Subsidizing Democracy: How Public Funding Changes Elections and How It Can Work in the Future, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

frank | A big takeaway from this election cycle is the record low levels of trust in the election system. Do you think that the way campaigns are financed plays into that sense?

Michael | Trust is really the crucial variable here. I recently participated in a webinar for the New York Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, and one of the things we were talking about was exit poll data. The AP Fox pre-election poll asked the question, "how confident are you that votes will be counted correctly?"

Of the people who said that they're not too confident, 61% were Trump voters.

Among the people who said that they're very confident that votes are counted correctly, only 32% of them voted for Trump. We have similar findings when we ask people about how confident they are that people who are eligible will be allowed to vote? Out of the people who believe that voter suppression is a serious problem, 74% of them voted for Biden. 

There is a huge lack of trust, and you can't point to any one reason. 

It's not elite rhetoric, it's not money in politics. Our political leaders have seized on the theme of mistrust and telling people that you can only trust these institutions some of the time. 

Ultimately that is going to have severe implications for democracy, and I don't know how you fix it. I don't think that reforming campaign finance systems alone can restore trust. In fact, a long time ago, I wrote a paper looking at the effects of public campaign funding. We asked: once public funding was put in place, did voters have greater efficacy or trust in government? We found that there was no change. For the most part, nerds like me overestimate the potential efficacy of policy changes. It turns out that very few people actually know very much about these laws, and unless you are a donor, which fewer than 3% of Americans are, you really have no reason to know what the rules are. I don't think there's any theoretical reason to believe that campaign finance reform is going to trickle down into greater trust in the system.

I do think you're right to seize on it. Almost any of the other problems we are facing right now can be traced back to this trust gap. For instance, one of the questions right now is why the polls were wrong in 2016 and 2020. If you dig down into it, you actually find in 2020, anyway, most of the polls got Biden right, but they got Trump wrong. I think the most compelling explanation as to why is because the political right in the United States has lower levels of social trust. That fuels non-response. They just don't participate in exit pools or pre-election polls, which explains why we see Trump's number understated. It's not that the polls are wrong, it's that these trust deficits have created different buckets of Americans who are participating and engaging with various aspects of our democracy in completely different ways.

You mentioned most people don't have a strong understanding of the current laws that govern campaign finance. What do you find are the most widespread misconceptions that the public has around campaign finance? Is there a disparity between party affiliation?

The disparities between parties aren't really that great. I think the largest misunderstanding that people have about federal campaign finance law is that people don't know that corporations can not donate directly to political candidates. After the Citizens United ruling, the headline was that corporate money was infiltrating American politics. And people absorbed that, but didn't understand the more esoteric nature of that case, which was, corporations can spend money in elections, but they can’t donate to candidates. In a 2014 book, my coauthor and I found that a solid majority of people incorrectly believe that corporations can give money directly to candidates. 

It's just such a confusing and byzantine regulatory environment that people revert back to the easy story that all these candidates are bought and sold by corporations. It is really hard to actually correct these beliefs.

Do you think the changes in the composition of the type of money going into candidates and campaigns after Citizens United warrants the amount of concern around it, or do you think it's become an outsized talking point?

We wrote a book about that very question. When we set off to write that book, I had the pitchforks out. I looked at that decision as among the most egregious examples of judicial activism in the history of the Supreme Court. I still believe that. I expected to find that that decision eroded democracy, but the data tell a completely different story. There is more money coming into the election system, that is true, but it's not affecting elections in any different way than any other money in American politics.

Super PAC money is not determining winners or losers. They are not buying the results of an election.

When you get down to it, they behave the way that most other political committees have behaved for a long time. 

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The Supreme Court's position on campaign finance often boils down to, "all we're doing is ensuring that there's more speech in the American political system." In our book, we were left with that as a conclusion. We really came to see that as sort of a neutral outcome. There is money coming in on both sides, and ultimately these elite actors, the super PAC heads, or even just normal political action committees, are taking the temperature of the electorate in a given district and putting money with people who they think are going to win. super PAC, or any PAC money, is really about an investment in trying to get access. PACs want to pick winners so that when it comes time to get access to a legislator for that 10-minute meeting, they have their card in their back pocket, because they gave $10,000.

Well is that where the idea of corruption coming from money comes from? Paying to play, essentially?

Corruption is a hard word. If I'm a member of Congress and you're a donor, and I'm totally anti-gun and you're a pro-gun organization, and you gave me $10,000 one night, and I suddenly changed my vote, that is corruption. That would be a vote purchase, and it's been very difficult to find any evidence of this. We should expect that it is difficult to find because illegal acts are covered up, but, generally, what we find is that these organizations are not trying to change people's minds. They're finding people who already agree with them and who are well-positioned to run for office in order to protect their friendly members in the majority. I don't think that's corrupt. The Supreme Court would definitely say that that's quintessential political speech. It is supporting candidates who agree with you. I think we have to be careful about what we brand corrupt.

I certainly understand that the average person looks at these sums of money and says, how could that not be corrupting?  If you're concerned about corruption, judicial elections at the state level is really the arena to focus on. The Supreme Court has agreed. In the Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. case, the Supreme Court decided that a $3 million contribution to a judge was probably corrupting. So there is a threshold somewhere, but it hasn't been defined. 

When I've done work with state legislators, one of the questions that I always ask them, just to see what they're going to say is, can I buy your vote? What does it cost to buy your vote? And the answer that I often get is, "Well, my vote is not for sale, but some other people might be interested." So there is a belief even among legislators that some of this stuff is going on, but especially at the state level.

You've done a lot of work studying state reforms. I am curious about the effects that reforms like matching systems or clean election programs have. How does it change the decisions campaigns make? Does it change how people feel about their elected officials? 

There are really two kinds of major public funding reforms at the state level.

Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, for example, have “Clean Elections” systems. If I'm running for the Arizona House of Representatives, they give me something like $35,000, which is about what it costs to run for that seat, and I can't raise any more money.

Everybody focuses on that and says, well, that's great because you've severed the link between the contributor and the legislator, and diminished the chances for corruption. But, I always focus on the question of time. 

You asked, how do campaigns change? One of the findings in a book I wrote about Clean Elections is that the campaigns take the time they were spending raising money, and reinvest in public interaction. They spend more time going out and meeting voters, they knock on more doors, meet with more interest groups. Nobody runs for office so they can sit in a conference room and call donors. They want to be in the parades and kiss the babies and shake the hands. With Clean Elections, they are freed from the responsibilities of raising money and are able to do that. 

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And on the other side of the coin, there is more interaction taking place between candidates and voters, so more people vote.

I have been able to trace an increase in participation back to these candidates accepting these big subsidies.

If I knock on your door, when you go to vote and see a name there, you can put a face to it. You remember that conversation you had back in October when that person knocked on your door and asked what you care about. Maybe that conversation made you vote for them, or maybe you hated them, but either way, you are more inclined to express an opinion because you have context. 

But, the Supreme Court has really kneecapped those systems. The future of state-level public funding is small-dollar matching programs like the one New York City pioneered. Mike Malbin, the director of the Campaign Finance Institute, has a paper that looks at how candidates become more democratic in their efforts to fundraise due to these reforms. The donor map expands because the incentive for candidates to interact with small donors changes with the matching program. I don't think we've done nearly enough work to figure out what the downstream implications of all this are. I would be amazed if there wasn't more civic participation to come from that. I mean you are literally investing in a campaign, that has got to pull you into other things like voting and volunteering. 

The conversation around campaign finance oftentimes revolves around federal reform, and specifically around Citizens United, should we shift our focus to local and state reforms? 

There’s a saying that states are the laboratories of democracy. When it comes to campaign finance, I think that's totally true. There is such wide variation in campaign finance policies across the states. I was glad to see the state of New York adopt the New York City model, even if the courts have stalled that effort. If New York or other states are able to implement these programs, we'll be able to trace how it changes state elections, and so I would expect that other states are paying attention.

Campaigns cost money. There's no way to have a democratic election these days without spending sums of money. I think most people recognize that and are okay with that. The question then becomes, who owns this infrastructure? Should it be million-dollar contributors, or should it be the people?

These policies, Clean Elections, and small-dollar matching programs, allow the money to be channeled through the voters, the people who, I think, should be represented.