Why was the Wisconsin's Clean Election law less effective than the election laws in Maine and Arizona?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Maine has the most successful clean election act to date. The reason why it's so successful is that the act sets the most distinctive parameters on when candidates can qualify to receive public funds for their election campaigns. Specifically, candidates only qualify if they can raise a set number of $5 dollar donations. Once qualified, the candidate receives a certain amount of funds for a non-contested race and a larger amount for a contested race ("Qualifying Contributions"; "Remember the Clean Elections Act"). Since qualification is based on $5 dollar donations, the need for $5 dollar donations helps eliminate the donation and collection of what's called "special-interest money" ("Remember"). Special-interest money is essentially large checks written by corporations and millionaires. The larger the check, the more those special-interest groups are able to manipulate elections in their favor. According to author MacWilliams of the Huffington Post, Maine's Clean Election Act of 1996 was so successful that, when the act was first enacted in 2000, "half of Maine's senators and 30 percent of the members for its House were elected without any [special-interest] money" ("Remember").

In contrast, Wisconsin's Clean Election Act allows for voters to tick a box on their income tax form in order to designate $1 be moved from the state's general fund to the Election Campaign Fund. One benefit of allowing tax payers to redistribute money as they wish is that it has no bearing on either the citizen's tax refund or the amount of taxes owed. Despite that benefit, not as many taxpayers as supporters of the law had hoped have opted to check the box. When the law was first enacted in 1977, less than 20% of taxpayers opted to contribute to the Election Campaign Fund in this manner, but in the late nineties, that number dropped to a mere 8.4% ("Wisconsin Briefs," p. 3). What's more, not many Wisconsin candidates opt to receive the grant money that the Election Campaign Fund allows for, mostly because the grant amounts are considered too low, and the law places many restrictions on how the grant money can be spent. The law states that if a candidate accepts grant money from the fund, than the candidate "must abide by the statutory spending limits related to the grant"; however, if the candidate's opponent does not accept grant money, than the candidate will no longer be restricted to spending limits ("Wisconsin Briefs," p. 2). Hence, most Wisconsin candidates will finance campaigns through personal and private funding rather than accept public funding. The Federal Supreme Court has already ruled that putting expenditure limits on personal funds and money funded by contributors would be breaking the First Amendment and eliminating the candidate's right to free expression and free speech.  Therefore, if most campaigns are financed through private funding, then Wisconsin again runs into the problem of special-interest money, meaning that the special-interest groups who can donate the highest check will have the greatest influence in the election.

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