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Analysis

A Bid to Counter Big Money in Politics Is Gaining Steam

Small donor public financing would amplify the voices of ordinary citizens in our elections.

January 15, 2019

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. 

(Image: Getty)