Clean Elections helps women seek and win elected office, and we should support that

June 5, 2019 3:06 pm

U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The 2018 midterms were another successful election for women in Arizona politics.

Voters chose Kyrsten Sinema to be the first woman to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate. Debbie Lesko won two elections for the House: a special election in April and then again in November.

A Democrat and Republican, these two women have little in common politically – except they both started their political careers running for the legislature with Clean Elections funds.

Lesko and Sinema are part of a trend I observe in my dissertation: more women run for seats in the state legislature, a key entry point into politics, in states with Clean Elections programs.

Past research illustrates how the public campaign funding program present in Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, democratizes who can run for and win elected office, reducing incumbency advantages and increasing competition and participation. Stanford’s Neil Malhotra concludes, “these programs do not simply fill the coffers of unserious and low-quality candidates, but rather they help serious contestants mount effective challenges.”

With limited data, I focused on the era before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling unleashed an explosion of private spending, when Clean Elections was most viable. It turns out that Clean Elections increased women’s odds of running between 2002 and 2010 by about one-third across all Clean Election states compared to control states, even after adjusting for political and demographic differences.

Clean Elections appears to help carry on the tradition of women winning their place in Arizona politics. Since well before statehood, Arizona women have led successful anti-establishment movements to represent their interests, from women’s suffrage, to jury service, to protections for working mothers.

In recent years, the Arizona Legislature has consistently ranked near the top in women’s representation. I grew up only knowing women governors, two of whom, Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republican Jan Brewer, won using Clean Elections money.

Given Arizona’s partisan makeup, women’s recent success defies national trends. Republican women have found less support as the party has moved right, but women in the Arizona Republican Party seem less affected. Why?

As evidenced by Debbie Lesko, Clean Elections might especially help Republican women in a party where they receive less support. In a 2017 paper, Karin Kitchens and Michele Swers find “the most viable female Republican candidates have more difficulty accessing Republican donor networks than similarly situated men.”

My research is consistent with their findings: The effects of Clean Elections increase as districts become more conservative.

The benefits of Clean Elections extend to Democrats, too. The majority of mega-donors are men, and Democratic men strongly prefer to give to other men. Women tend to rely on small-dollar donations, working harder to raise the same amount. Even though Democratic women receive more institutional support, they still face significant disadvantages.

In years since 2010, even with far less funding, Clean Elections continues to provide a path to elected office for candidates less connected to elite donor networks. I see this benefit as far outweighing the risk of funding a few unserious candidates.

Ideally, we would strengthen Clean Elections to support more political newcomers against the tide of private spending.

The powers that be never liked Clean Elections – nor should they. It loosens traditional gatekeeping functions and weakens the levers of influence for corporate interests. But beyond buying policy outcomes, we should ask how else money in politics distorts representation.

Today’s system of big donors and endless fundraising excludes many candidates from the get-go. They are women, working people, caretakers, and teachers who can’t afford to run themselves, but Clean Elections has been shown to help.

As we grow increasingly frustrated with a government unresponsive to our needs, a revived Clean Elections could offer a better alternative, with candidates ready to respond.

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Ian O'Grady

Ian O’Grady is a Marshall Scholar from Arizona studying Politics at the University of Oxford.