In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York urged lawmakers to enact comprehensive small donor public financing of elections. In November, Fair Elections for New York — a coalition of more than 150 organizations that includes community, labor, environmental, faith, and tenant groups, as well as the Brennan Center — sent a letter to the governor and the New York Legislature, demanding that they prioritize the policy, which would would reduce the influence of moneyed interests. Small donor public financing also is part of the sweeping measure introduced this month in Washington to reform American democracy.
It's not hard to see why this innovative policy is gaining steam. Wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups have too much influence on U.S. elections. That influence has expanded dramatically since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United, which permitted corporations to spend unlimited money on elections and led to the rise of super PACs.
Since Citizens United, the financing of U.S. elections — and thus political power — has shifted to a small group of wealthy mega-donors, who make multimillion-dollar contributions to candidates. In 2010, the top 100 individual donors contributed just $73 million to federal candidates, political parties, and other committees, such as super PACs. By 2016, that number had increased to more than $900 million.
But the American people are fed up with the level of control that special interests have over elections and they’re ready to fix the country’s corrupt political system. According to an October 2017 poll, 94 percent of Americans blamed wealthy political donors for political dysfunction. And in a September 2018 poll, 77 percent of registered voters said that “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” was either the “single most” or a “very important” factor in deciding their vote for Congress.
To tackle big money in politics, we need to empower small donors
In the long run, getting big money out of politics will involve overturning Citizens United and other problematic court decisions. But an even more powerful way to help counter the outsized influence of the extremely wealthy on the government and give power back to voters can happen now: small-donor public financing, in which small donations from citizens to participating candidates are matched by multiple matching public funds.
A small-donor public financing system gives political candidates a way to rely less on big checks and special interests. This reform increases the participation of small donors in elections — and magnifies the role of everyday citizens. And unlike some campaign finance laws, public financing doesn’t run afoul of the Supreme Court's tight restrictions on laws that limit political giving.
Public financing is intended to make it easier for ordinary citizens to contribute to political campaigns — or to run for office. This boosts political participation and helps increase the racial, gender, and economic diversity of both political donors and candidates.
Reducing financial barriers makes elections more competitive by expanding the potential pool of candidates and lowering the number of uncontested races. And in places that already have public financing systems, candidates are changing the way they run their campaigns. These systems encourage candidates to spend more time interacting directly with their constituents instead of spending all of their time on fundraising.
Small-donor public financing works — and it’s gaining steam
Public financing has gained popularity in recent years across the United States. As of 2018, a total of 24 municipalities and 14 states — with a total population of 100 million — have enacted some form of public financing, including 8 local governments since 2010 alone. And at least 124 winning congressional candidates in 2018 voiced support for public financing.
But public financing isn’t a new idea. In fact, New York City has had a hugely successful public financing program for almost 30 years — one that incorporates a small-donor matching. New York City’s program provides public matching funds at a $6-to-$1 rate for contributions up to $175 from city residents. In last November’s midterm elections, New York City voters supported a measure to expand the program.
The people are ready to fix the system. Now.
A democracy should strive to provide an equal voice for all its citizens. But America’s current campaign finance system is too heavily tilted toward a small number of wealthy mega-donors. Thankfully, there are ways to give power back to voters, such as empowering small donors. And while the year is young, the momentum behind small-donor public financing in Congress, New York, and beyond is truly exciting.