Austin should reject free speech pain for politicians’ gain

Photo by Waylon Cunningham for The Texas Tribune

Americans are more disenchanted with politics than ever before. Yet some think the solution is to give taxpayer dollars to politicians’ campaigns. Unsurprisingly, this policy is becoming more popular among the very figures who would benefit from it. Such a scheme deserves skepticism, especially since its designers are, in their own words, “not-super-qualified people deciding the fate of Austin elections.”

The Austin City Council is the latest battleground over taxpayer financing of political campaigns. It tasked the Charter Review Commission with devising such a system for the city, on the theory that it will reduce funding gaps among candidates and improve voter turnout. In fact, not only would a tax financing system likely fail in these goals, but it would also undermine Austin residents’ freedom of speech and association.

The commission opted to endorse a system whereby residents would receive government vouchers to give to candidates, emulating a similar program in Seattle. Vouchers function in the same basic way as other tax-financing systems: The government collects money from residents via taxes and fees, and the funding is then funneled to eligible candidates. This completely changes the ordinary dynamics of campaign finance — though not in the way proponents think.

Our political system is largely defined by the ability of citizens to voluntarily express their beliefs — not just by voting, but also by donating to candidates, groups, or causes they support. These actions are protected by the First Amendment because money is essential to take part in numerous kinds of political activity, like buying TV ads or publishing flyers.

By contrast, citizens do not have a say in paying taxes or fees. Seattle’s voucher program, for example, levies a tax on city property owners. The city forces taxpayers to indirectly support candidates they disagree with — or worse, candidates who express repugnant viewpoints or even those who are corrupt.

That’s exactly what has happened in places like New York City, where an openly anti-Semitic candidate received nearly $100,000 in residents’ hard-earned money despite his views, and candidates later investigated for abusing taxpayer dollars have received millions in matching grants. Although residents can choose which eligible candidates get their vouchers, those paying into the system do not have the choice to withhold their money. Having the right to support a candidate ought to imply a right to not support that candidate.

Despite these costs, tax financing would not even address the issues of funding inequality or voter apathy. Although backers insist on following Seattle’s example, that city has not seen much success.

After just one year, the program has already seen its first fraud investigation. Inequality has only continueda mere fraction of candidates qualified for vouchers in the first year, and they held a large fundraising edge over their opponents. It seems the biggest winners under the program would have done just fine raising money themselves.

And far from bringing more people into politics, the first year of Seattle’s voucher program saw below-average county voter turnout. Indeed, research by the Institute for Free Speech, where I work, has found no link between taxpayer financing and voter turnout.

This evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Austin City Council members who desire a similar program are overestimating its benefits. And that may not change. Members of the Charter Review Commission have all but admitted they won’t bother to closely study Seattle’s experience. One commissioner conceded it was “hopelessly naïve” to think that such a study would occur.

Another commissioner’s candid admission that members were “not-super-qualified” in this area addresses a central truth about campaign finance reform. Lawmakers are not often experts in designing a system that’s fair for everyone. It is hard enough to overcome the inherent conflict of interest when lawmakers design the rules by which their own campaigns must abide. That task becomes all the more difficult when they don’t bother to research the programs they are consider putting into practice.

Tax financing comes at great cost to Americans’ political rights and autonomy. Yet it does not seem to produce much of a payoff — except for politicians. Austin City Council members would do well to actually look at the real-world experience of campaign vouchers. They may find it hard to vouch for their success.

Joe Albanese

Research fellow, Institute for Free Speech

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