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Perfect Match: How Public Financing Can Empower Small Donors

Liz Kennedy

New York State has a chance to move from the back of the class on campaign finance regulation to star pupil status by enacting a small donor match public funding system. State leaders discussed the value of such a system, and the differences it could make in the lives of New Yorkers, at a forum yesterday afternoon hosted by Governor Cuomo, the New York State Democratic Committee, the Center for American Progress, and Third Way.

Political equality is a fundamental American value. Matching small campaign donations with public funds is a way to honor this value by empowering citizens and magnifying their voices. Where the current campaign finance system operates as a megaphone for millionaires, public funding helps push back against the political inequality brought about by the influx of huge donors and special interest money. It protects against corruption and the appearance of corruption that can turn off so many citizens who see their government as in the pockets of the highest bidders. Two-thirds of Americans say they have less trust in government because they believe big donors have more influence than regular voters.

Sometimes it is said that we get the government that we deserve. Speakers at yesterday’s forum explained that Albany is awash in a pay-to-play culture where campaign donations influence what gets attended to, who gets their calls returned, and what decisions get made. Providing public funds for state legislative campaigns would help change all that and put citizens in the driver’s seat.

With a small donor match, candidates are incentivized to raise money from citizens who can afford smaller donations of $20, $50, or $100, knowing that public funds will kick in to raise the value of those gifts to $100, $250, or $500 respectively (where the match is 5 to 1). New York City has employed this system for years with positive results.

This system would give elected officials a reason to reach out beyond the normal bubble to a broader swath of the public and affect what politicians think should be on the legislative agenda. Providing public funds at a multiple match level amplifies the power of small donations, which makes cultivating regular constituents much more attractive for officeholders who have limited time and pressing needs to raise funds in this campaign environment.

Currently, New York has the highest contribution limits in the country. Moreover, enforcement of even these contribution limits is shoddy, as documented in a report released yesterday by NYPIRG. They found that every year, hundreds of donors give more money than is allowed, scores of candidates fail to disclose large contributions given close to Election Day, and other violations are rampant as well. New York urgently needs to reform and update its money in politics regulations and enforcement mechanisms, and Governor Cuomo is leading the charge to do so.

Public financing is a constitutional way to fight corruption and encourage citizen participation. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principles of public financing since the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo where it stated that public financing “is a congressional effort not to abridge, restrict, or censor speech, but rather to use public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process, goals vital to a self-governing people. Thus [public financing] furthers, not abridges, pertinent First Amendment values.”

It is anticipated to cost between $35-40 million a year, which is a reasonable price tag given that New York State’s annual budget is over $100 billion. It is not too much to hope that reducing the dependency of elected officials on big donors will save at least that amount of money from reduced tax breaks and other special favors. This is a good deal for New Yorkers.