Decades of disastrous Supreme Court decisions have enabled wealthy individuals and corporations to have an outsized influence in our political system by allowing them to pour unlimited amounts of money into elections. Cities, counties, and states around the country have combatted this trend with innovative campaign finance reforms that provide public funding to qualified candidates.
Programs for public financing of elections provide limited public funds to help finance the campaigns of candidates who demonstrate popular support. These programs amplify the voices of local constituents while curbing the power of big money in elections. They accomplish this by reducing participating candidates’ reliance on large individual, corporate, and out-of jurisdiction donors, while providing incentives to reach out to constituents for small contributions.
Today there are 27 active programs in states, counties, and cities across the country that provide public funds to candidates for political office.1 The oldest programs have been in place for more than 4 decades, while new systems are being proposed. These programs vary in basic design, the scope of the offices they cover, and the amount of funding they provide to candidates.
Benefits of Public Funding Programs
Public campaign funding programs have been successful in diversifying the donor base of candidates in terms of class and race. In some places, these programs have also succeeded in diversifying the gender, racial, and class makeup of candidate pools. Program benefits include:
Greater racial and class diversity among donors
City council candidates who participate in New York City’s matching funds program receive contributions from a more diverse pool of donors—by race and class—than New York State Assembly candidates representing the same jurisdictions. 3
More women running for office
Money can be a barrier to women’s representation, since many lack the wealth or access to wealthy networks that white men possess. Common Cause’s analysis of the early years of the Arizona and Maine “clean elections” programs found that after enactment, more women started running for and getting elected to office. 4
Increased number of donors
Connecticut legislators who participate in the state’s Clean Elections Program receive contributions from a wider set of donors than those who do not participate, because they need a minimum number of in-district donors to qualify for a public grant.5
More quality time with constituents
Candidates who have participated in the Connecticut Citizens Clean Elections program report that they are able to spend more time with their constituents and receive different feedback than from big-money donors.6 Political science research also finds that candidates who receive public funds spend more time with their constituents rather than fundraising.7
Descriptions of Public Funding Systems Currently in Use
Small-Donor Matching Programs
Matching fund programs match small contributions to qualifying candidates with public funds, according to a specified ratio. Today’s highest matching funds ratio is in New York City, where participating candidates receive $6 for every $1 in small contributions. This means that a $50 contribution from an individual donor can actually be worth $350 or more to a participating candidate. The goal is to amplify the voices of regular voters by incentivizing candidates to seek donations from a broad base of constituents rather than a few wealthy donors.
Grant-based programs—often referred to as “clean elections,” “fair elections” or “citizen-funded elections”—provide full funding for candidates to run their campaigns. Participating candidates receive a lump-sum grant from a public fund and no further fundraising is required (or allowed), so every participating candidate has equal resources with which to campaign. To qualify for the program, candidates must raise a threshold number of very small contributions (often $5) to demonstrate broad support in the community. Newer systems can allow for further fundraising given the challenge of increasing outside spending.
Voucher programs provide a “coupon” to individuals to donate to a candidate (or sometimes a party or political committee), who can then redeem the voucher for campaign funds.
Tax credit programs generally allow those who file long-form tax returns to claim a full or partial credit for small political contributions made during the fling year to candidates (and sometimes parties or PACs). The tax credit can be refundable (available to those without tax liability) or not. Other programs refund the contributor’s money immediately, so donors do not have to wait for tax time.
Matching fund, voucher and tax credit/refund programs often (but need not) require participating candidates to accept restrictions on their fundraising or spending in order to qualify for public funds.
1. The list comes from 3 sources: (1) List of municipal programs from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform; (2) the book chapter "Public Financing in the States and Municipalities" by Robert M. Stern in Costas Panagopoulos' Public Financing in American Elections (2011) Philadelphia: Temple University Press. And (3) Dēmos research