Also a Winner: Public Funding

One bit of little-celebrated news from the election is that more publicly-funded candidates were elected to office in 2008 than ever before....

November 11, 2008

One bit of little-celebrated news from the election is that more publicly-funded candidates were elected to office in 2008 than ever before. Nearly 400 publicly-funded candidates won their races—an 85% increase from 2006. The large numbers are due in part to the success of the newly-minted public funding system in Connecticut, where 75% of candidates for state legislature ran in the inaugural program. When Connecticut's new General Assembly takes office next year, 81% will have been elected with public funds. The percentage is similar in Maine, where it is estimated that publicly funded candidates will hold a staggering 85% of the seats in the next legislative session.


In these voluntary public financing systems, candidates who choose to participate collect a certain amount of small contributions from constituents to qualify for a public grant. Once qualified, candidates agree to abide by strict expenditure limits and forego all private contributions. Public funding programs are currently available for legislative and executive candidates in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, for judicial candidates in North Carolina, and for municipal candidates in several cities.  


In North Carolina, judicial candidates for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals flocked to public financing. Publicly funded candidates won all five Court of Appeals seats that were up for grabs this election year, as well as the only contested Supreme Court seat. Once these candidates take the bench next year, 68% of the highest judges in North Carolina—five of the seven on the Supreme Court and 10 of the 15 on the Court of Appeals—will have run using public funding.

And in Arizona, a steadily increasing number of legislative and statewide candidates are opting to participate in public financing. Approximately two-thirds of all candidates ran under the program this year, up from less than half that amount when the program began in 2000. Sixty-four percent of the legislators in the next General Assembly and at least 8 of the 11 statewide officials won with public funding. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who ran as a publicly funded candidate in her 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial bids, remarked at a Brennan Center event earlier this year that the program made a "world of difference" for her, both as a candidate and an officeholder. Because it allows candidates to "focus on meeting voters, instead of dialing for dollars," Napolitano urged that "[g]reater use of public financing can give citizens a greater voice, and greater confidence, in our democratic system."


States' success stories show that public funding works—and the programs are immensely popular with legislators from across the political spectrum. Now that we have such strong evidence from statehouses, it's time that Congress seriously considers public funding for federal lawmakers.