Center Constituents and Small Donors Through People-Powered Election Campaigns

You start to see really quickly how the ability of people to support you morally and with their vote …
outstrips their ability to support you financially, [which] makes all the difference in the world. And how people who love what you’re saying downgrade you as a candidate because they don’t think you have enough money: ‘I love what you’re saying, but you can’t win.’”




We need to build a democracy where everyone’s freedom to vote is respected, every vote is counted, and everyone—from any walk of life—can run for office and win. Too often, a person’s voice in our democracy is determined not by the power of their ideas but by the size of their wallet. Big money in politics keeps many qualified candidates out of office, because running for office without the advantage of fundraising or incumbency is extremely difficult. In 2015-2016, state legislative candidates who lacked the advantage of fundraising or incumbency only won their races 9 percent of the time.395

Because running for office is so expensive, wealthy individuals and corporations who can spend big money on state elections and campaign donations have the largest say in who runs for office—and who wins.396 These donors are disproportionately wealthy, white, and male, and hold demonstrably different views and priorities than the rest of us, especially about how we structure our economy.397 Many qualified people who do not have access to wealthy donor networks decide not to run for office at all; not surprisingly, these could-be candidates are disproportionately people of color.398 And, because of a long history of race-based exclusion in our economy and our democracy, candidates of color often raise less money when they do run.

In a system dominated by big money, many Americans feel unrepresented. From the county level up to Congress, 90 percent of our elected officials are white (65 percent are white men), while nearly 40 percent of the country are people of color. Women of color are the most underrepresented group in the halls of power: though they make up 19 percent of our national population, women of color account for just 4 percent of all elected officials.399 In some states, the numbers are even more abysmal. For instance, white men account for 28 percent of the state of New York’s population, yet make up 74 percent of its elected officials. Though 43 percent of New York’s population are people of color, only 8 percent of its elected officials are—and just 3 percent are women of color. 

When financial barriers keep everyday Americans from running for office, we all pay the price with a government that is unresponsive to the voices of the people. Instead, a small, wealthy donor class determines what issues receive attention and what policies become law—or do not become law, in the case of policies like raising the minimum wage.400 In fact, a Princeton political scientist determined that “under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt”401 and “patterns of responsiveness … often correspond more closely to a plutocracy than to a democracy.”402

We can change who has access to power in our democracy. We can create people-funded elections that break down financial barriers to running for office and make room for community leaders who have a lot of popular support but don’t have access to big money. By creating robust small-donor empowerment programs, we invest in the democracy we want, so that people from all walks of life can have an equal chance to participate. This is especially true when public financing programs are designed with input from communities that have historically been left out of the process.



  • 85% of Americans believe we must “fundamentally change” or “completely rebuild” the current system of funding political campaigns.403
  • 72% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans support “citizen-funded” elections that match small-dollar donations using public funds.404
  •  63% of Seattle residents and 52% of South Dakota residents have voted to adopt voucher programs through ballot initiatives. In South Dakota, support for the measure was even higher in the top 5 majority-Native American counties (ranging from 54-71%).405



Bring our democracy into balance by creating fairer ways to fund election campaigns. The best way to do this is to empower voters and small donors by providing adequate public funds for public election campaigns.

To be successful, a public financing system must be:  

  • Well-funded and designed to allow candidates to run robust campaigns at every stage of the election cycle—from before the primary, to the days leading up to the general election.406
    • Resource the program and index funding to inflation or other indicia—such as an average of prior fundraising totals across election cycles, or the number of residents— to keep the program relevant over time.
  • Designed to increase the participation and importance of small-dollar donors, including from communities of color and other historically underrepresented communities.
  • Limit participating candidates from accepting large donations and donations from corporations, or from spending large amounts of their own or their families’ funds.
  • Use multiple types of public funding, including:
    • Public funding to match small-dollar donations, which amplifies the voices (and dollars) of low- and middle-income Americans.
    • Seed-money grants that allow candidates to get their campaigns running.
    • Vouchers (or “credits”) for residents to donate to campaigns, which encourage candidates to engage all residents, including those who lack disposable income (who are disproportionately people of color, trans and queer people, immigrants, and people with disabilities). 
  • Inclusive of many candidates and communities.
    • Offer public funding to candidates for any election in which fundraising might be a barrier to running, including in general, primary, and special elections.
    • Offer public funding to Independent and third-party candidates.
    • Design programs with input from community members and community-based organizations, who will be instrumental to successfully implementing the program.
    • Include a wide range of offices in the system, from district attorney to governor and state legislator, where feasible.


States can take other low-cost steps to empower small donors:

  • Create small-donor committees to amplify the voice and resources of everyday people in elections. These committees accept and pool only small contributions in order to distribute larger donations to candidates, parties, or other committees.407
  • Ensure that existing campaign finance laws are inclusive of unbanked and underbanked households, which rely more on financial services loaded with hidden fees like prepaid credit cards and payday loans.408 For these Americans, requiring political donations made by check, credit or debit card can be a barrier to participating. States should be inclusive about the forms that donations can take, including by allowing small cash contributions.409
  • Raise the minimum wage and ensure fair scheduling, so that more people are able to make small contributions to the candidates of their choice.



  • We need a government of, by, and for the people, not a skewed system where the strength of our voices depends upon the size of our wallets.
  •  In America, people from any walk of life should be able to run for office and win, not just those with access to wealthy donors. When a political donor class that is whiter, wealthier, and more male than the rest of us calls the shots, the result is a democracy that is not reflective of we the people.
  • The need to raise large amounts of money prevents many qualified people from running for office. Well-funded public financing programs strengthen democracy by reining in the influence of big money in elections, amplifying the voices of everyday people, and breaking down barriers to running for office.
  • Programs that empower small donors transform how people run for office, and win. They allow candidates and elected officials to spend more time with constituents, hearing their issues and priorities, and less time with big donors—including big donors who don’t reside in the candidate’s district. By replacing large contributions from moneyed special interests with small contributions from everyday Americans, we can make every voice count.
    • Tip: Identify specific industries and special interests that dominate elections in your state. Small donor public financing of elections would help shift power away from these special interests, to the hands of the people.
  • Small donor programs (including voucher programs) empower people who better represent the population as a whole. In today’s climate, big donors with bigger wallets drown out everyday people, especially people of color.
  • Successful programs in place right now are working to increase the importance of small donors, and to create racial, class, and gender diversity among donors and candidates. The cost of these programs is a minor investment compared to the state’s overall budget, and a critical investment in a fairer democracy.



More than 28 state and local jurisdictions have public financing of elections.410 Successful programs empower everyday people to participate in our democracy in new ways, reduce the influence of big money, and make small-dollar contributions more important.

  • Seattle’s first-of-its kind “Democracy Voucher” program provides eligible residents with 4 vouchers of $25 each, which they may direct to the participating candidate(s) of their choosing. In its first year, the program has brought new candidates and donors into the democratic process. The three candidates running for City Council under the program swept their races while running campaigns focused on small donors.411 The program has already increased small-donor participation to historic levels.412
  • (In 2017, South Dakotans voted to enact a similar measure, including a public financing program that provided 2 $50 “credits” to residents to contribute to participating candidates. When implemented, the program is predicted to increase the role of small contributors and make the pool of South Dakota political donors more diverse and more representative of the state’s population (which is 9 percent Native American).413 Unfortunately, for the time being, the South Dakota legislate has blocked the initiative.)414
  • Participants in Connecticut’s statewide Citizens’ Elections program receive contributions from a wider set of donors than candidates who do not participate, because they need a minimum number of in-district donors to qualify for a public grant. Passing the program helped build the people power necessary to pass progressive state reforms—including the first paid sick leave bill in the nation.415  Maine and Arizona have similar programs, and Maine voters recently strengthened theirs through a 2015 ballot initiative. 
  • New York City’s program matches contributions up to $175 from residents to participating candidates at a rate of 6-1. By amplifying small-donor voices, the program also advances racial equity, since small-dollar donations are much more reflective of the city’s racial diversity than large donations (which tend to come predominantly white neighborhoods).416

The program helped Tish James run for office and get elected as Public Advocate, the first woman of color ever elected to a city-wide position in New York City.417 Overall participation rates are high: In 2017, the mayor and 7 of the 10 City Council winners used the program to run for office.418


Stay Tuned: Washington, D.C.’s recently-enacted Fair Elections program
Instead of matching small contributions at a rate of 6-1 like New York City’s program, the D.C. program will match small contributions to participating candidates at a rate of 5-1 and provide candidates with seed-money grants ranging from $10,000-$160,000, depending on the office. This hybrid system was designed to advance racial equity across the District, and to allow participating candidates to run viable campaigns at every stage of the election cycle. The program will provide funding to qualifying participating candidates for Mayor, Attorney General, City Council (at-large and ward), and D.C.’s Board of Education (at-large and ward).





394. More Than 80 DC Residents Gather At Community Meeting To Discuss Proposal To Strengthen Local Democracy, Demos, Nov. 30, 2017,; video clips available at

395. Ciara O'Neill, Money and Incumbency in State Legislative Races, 2015 and 2016, Nov. 1, 2017.

396. Id.; see also Sean McElwee, The Unbearable Whiteness of America’s Donor Class, AlJazeera America, Jan. 8, 2015,

397. David Callahan & J. Mijin Cha, Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America, Demos, Feb. 2013.; Adam Lioz, How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos, July 23, 2015. (hereinafter “Stacked Deck 2”).

398. See Adam Lioz, Stacked Deck 2.

399. Women’s Donor Network, Who Leads Us?, (last visited Feb. 1, 2018). The site presents the results of a study of over 40,000 elected officials in the United States, which found that people of color and women are underrepresented in elected offices. Though white men make up just 31% of our population, 65% of our elected officials from the county level to Congress are white men. 

400. Sean McElwee, Whose Voice, Whose Choice? The Distorting Influence Of The Political Donor Class In Our Big-Money Elections, Demos, Dec. 8, 2016.

401. Martin Gilens, Affluence And Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power In America 1 (2012).

402. Id. at 234.

403. The New York Times & CBS polling, “Americans’ Views on Money in Politics”, June 2, 2015,

404. MayDay.US, Voters of Every Political Stripe Agree on the Need for Fundamental Reform to the Campaign Finance System, Sept. 25, 2015, (72% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans expressed support of citizen-funded elections that match small donations using public funds.)

405. South Dakota Secretary of State, South Dakota Official Election Returns and Registration Figures: 2016 Primary and General Election, at p. 41 (last visited Feb. 1, 2018) (county voting results for Measure 22, results for Oglala Lakota, Todd, Buffalo, Dewey, Ziebach Counties).

406. A Demos profile of Amanda Renteria, a former candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (CA-21) in a district with 3 of the nation’s poorest cities, sheds some light one why it’s important for candidates to have access to financial resources throughout their campaign. Ms. Renteria explained, “[t]he truth is, particularly when you’re a challenger, it’s the ability to answer back or to clarify,” not just the ability to get your message out there, that can be a deal-breaker. “And in some ways, if you don’t have [money] it plays a role in truly silencing a campaign.” See Karen Shanton & Adam Lioz, The Money Chase: Moving From Big Money Dominance In the 2014 Midterms To A Small Donor Democracy, Demos, Jan. 14, 2015, at 21,

407. See, e.g., Colorado Secretary of State, Small Donor Committees (SDCs), (last visited Feb. 1, 2018). In Colorado, people can pool donations of $50 or less into “small donor committees,” which are allowed to contribute roughly 10 times more to campaigns than regular PACs are.

408. Over a quarter of American households, and disproportionately households of color, either obtain financial services outside the traditional banking system or do not use the traditional banking system whatsoever. See generally Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 2015 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, (last visited Feb. 1, 2018).

409. Many states are inclusive of cash contributions, at least to some degree. See, e.g., H.R.S. §§ 11-302 &  11-351(b) (Hawaii’s public financing system is inclusive of qualifying cash contributions; the law requires candidates who receive “a contribution of more than $100 in cash from a single person “[issue] a receipt to the contributor and [keep] a record of the contribution.”); N.M.S.A. § 1-19A-2 (H) (allows qualifying contributions (which must be exactly $5) to be made in cash); W. Va. Code § 3–12–3 (13), a ‘‘qualifying contribution’’ means a “contribution received from a West Virginia registered voter of not less than $1 nor more than $100 in the form of cash …“).

410. Juhem Navarro-Rivera & Emmanuel Caicedo, Public Funding For Electoral Campaigns: How 27 States, Counties, and Municipalities Empower Small Donors and Curb the Power of Big Money in Politics, Demos, June 2017. (identifying the jurisdictions of MN; CT; Santa Fe, NM; NYC; Long Beach, CA; ME: Tuscon, AZ; NJ; NM; San Francisco, CA; WV; FL; Los Angeles, CA; MD; RI; AZ; Albuquerque, NM; MI; Oakland, CA; MA; VT; New Haven, CT; Austin, TX; Boulder, CO; Montgomery County, MD; Seattle, WA). Additional jurisdictions include Washington, D.C. and Howard County, MD.

411. See, e.g., Tyler Creighton, Big Donors were Big Losers on Election Day. . . Except in Congress, ReThink Media, Nov. 8, 2017, (noting that the Democracy Voucher program made it possible for candidate Teresa Mosqueda to run for office while she was the director of the Washington State Labor Council). See also Josh Cohen, “Democracy Vouchers Aim to Amplify Low-income Voices, to Conservative Ire,” The Guardian, Jul. 7, 2017, (discussing the campaign of incumbent Jon Grant, who used vouchers as a focal point to campaign around homelessness); Tyler Creighton, Democracy Vouchers Elevate the Voices of Grassroots Candidates and Everday People in Seattle, ReThink Media, Aug. 18, 2017,

412. First Look: Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program Reducing the Power of Big Money and Expanding Political Participation, Every Voice and Win Win Network, Nov. 15, 2017,

414. Blueprints For Democracy: South Dakota The Government Accountability And Anti-Corruption Act, Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, updated Feb. 2, 2017,

415. Adam Lioz, Stacked Deck 2.

416. See id.; see also Every Voice Center, The Color of Money: Early Presidential Fundraising Shows White, Wealthy Donor Base, Aug. 2016,; Rahna Epting, “Race, Presidential Politics, and the Challenge of Creating a Democracy for All of Us,” HuffPost, Aug. 7, 2016,

417. See Every Voice, Champions of Democracy: Tish James, March 13, 2017,

418. Tyler Creighton, Big Donors were Big Losers.