During the 2016 election, half of the money contributed to federal candidates came from only 15,810 individuals. Candidates are increasingly relying on super PACs, secretive “outside” spending, and big donations from a small segment of the public. This shift from the people to big money undermines the U.S. Constitution’s promise of democratic self-governance, which is premised on widespread participation by all citizens in our elections.
A new report from Campaign Legal Center (CLC), “Buying Back Democracy: The Evolution of Public Financing in U.S. Elections,” looks at how public financing programs can reorient our elections by reducing opportunities for corruption, encouraging new and diverse candidates to seek public office, and broadening political participation among the public at large. The report also serves as guide for advocates, lawmakers, and voters seeking to build a small-donor democracy.
Public financing offers a powerful antidote to the influence of super PACs, special interest groups, and the handful of wealthy individuals who have a disproportionate influence on our elections. Congress’s failure to act at the federal level has energized citizens to pursue reform at the state and local levels. As a result, we are seeing new levels of support for public financing of campaigns across the country.
The origins of public financing can be traced back to the Watergate era, with the creation of the presidential public financing system. In the 1980s New York City’s program followed with consistently high rates of candidate participation. Seattle instituted the Democracy Voucher Program in 2015. The program precipitated a record number of city residents contributing to local candidates over the course of a single election cycle.
The success of public financing programs in New York City and Seattle has motivated other jurisdictions to create similar programs. In the past three years, six different jurisdictions have enacted public financing programs to help provide everyday citizens with an opportunity have their voices heard.
While each jurisdiction must decide which mechanism of public funding is right for its community, “Buying Back Democracy: The Evolution of Public Financing in U.S. Elections,” highlights six principles that underlie successful public financing programs:
- Maintaining a viable program: Programs must be updated to provide candidates with competitive levels of funding and keep pace with changing campaign practices.
- Innovation: Lawmakers should embrace innovations and different program types to tailor programs to best fit the needs of their communities.
- Secure funding: Programs require a secure and dependable source of funding.
- Outreach & Education: Training for candidates and the public is essential for encouraging candidate and small-dollar donor participation.
- Recordkeeping & Auditing: Candidate recordkeeping and administrative oversight are essential to maintain the integrity of the program.
- Understanding the objectives: A well-designed program can encourage small donor participation in campaigns can help foster other forms of civic participation, like voting.
Public financing offers a versatile and powerful tool for cities, counties, and states seeking to improve the integrity and accessibility of elections. When public financing systems are well structured and updated as necessary, these programs have proven to be a viable method to advance the U.S. Constitution’s promise of democratic self-governance and help to make our democracy more inclusive and representative of our nation as a whole.