Public Financing of Non-Presidential Campaigns

Since the founding of this nation through contemporary times, elections in America have been fraught with scandals involving money in politics. Without a doubt, money in politics cannot be avoided and should not necessarily be viewed as undesirable. Political campaigns are an effort to communicate to the polity messages about candidates and their issues, and to provide the public with some level of knowledge from which to make election decisions. All of these communications cost money.

At the same time, however, money in politics can also serve to undermine the integrity of elections. Free and fair elections—the pillar of American democracy—are endangered when money becomes so critical to the success of campaigns that candidates grow desperate for campaign contributions. From the perspective of politicians, desperation may preoccupy candidates with fundraising, detracting from communicating with voters or even governing. It may also encourage ethical lapses, negotiating on public policy where perhaps negotiations should not be made, or worse yet trading favors for dollars. From the perspective of the electorate, excessive money in politics may be perceived as corrupting politicians, whether based in reality or not, and such a perception can damage the public’s confidence in the democratic process—with consequences just as grave as corruption itself.

At least as early as the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century, efforts have been made to reform the way in which campaigns are financed, seeking to provide the financial resources necessary to wage a campaign but to reduce the troublesome sources and amounts of campaign money. One the earliest reform proposals—which mistakenly is seen by many as a radical, new idea—is public financing of candidate campaigns. In brief, public financing of candidate campaigns consists of providing qualified candidates with government resources, such as general revenue funds or free television time, with which to conduct their campaigns. Simply put, the idea behind public financing is to provide candidates with the means necessary to pay for campaign activity while easing the fundraising frenzy of candidates and lessening the perception of politicians taking private money in exchange for granting political favors.

Public financing programs come in many different themes and variations. Currently, the federal government, 14 states, and 13 local jurisdictions provide some form of public financing of candidate campaigns, with these numbers, especially at the local level, regularly in flux. Although all public financing systems share common essential features, the differences in the nature, scope and implementation of the programs between the states can be stark. Public financing systems between jurisdictions will vary in the number of offices covered by the programs; the extent of funding provided to candidates; the timing of disbursements; the procedures to determine eligible candidates; the sources of revenue to pay for the programs; and a host of other factors.

Generally, there are two types of public financing programs for candidate elections: a partial matching fund program, and full public financing.

Partial Public Financing: The government provides public funds to qualified candidates to pay for a portion, but not all, of campaign expenses. The public grants in a partial program are usually awarded as matching funds, a certain amount of public dollars matching private campaign contributions, or bloc grants in which the government provides a lump sum payment to candidates upon meeting specific qualification criteria, such as raising a minimum amount of private contributions as a measure of candidate viability.

Full Public Financing: The government provides public funds to qualified candidates to pay for nearly all campaign expenses in exchange for candidates agreeing not to accept any private campaign contributions beyond the initial seed money used to start a campaign organization and to meet specific qualification criteria, such as raising a certain number of de minimus $5 contributions. This type of public financing program is often referred to as a "clean elections" program.

Why Public Financing Advocates Should Support the Senate Campaign Reform Bill

  To see the list of states with public financing programs, CLICK HERE.

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