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How Public Campaign Financing Empowers Small Donors Nationwide

Mounting evidence continues to show that public financing amplifies underrepresented voices and makes democracy work better for all Americans.

A close up shot of a 20 dollar bill bring taken out of a wallet
Catherine McQueen/Getty

Public campaign finan­cing is a reform on the march. Recog­niz­ing it as the most power­ful response to the last decade’s explo­sion of big money in polit­ics, state and local govern­ments have enacted new programs that will soon be fuel­ing people-powered campaigns.

In New York State, candid­ates for statewide and legis­lat­ive office will start opting in to the new small donor match­ing program as soon as this Novem­ber. State legis­lat­ors and Gov. Kathy Hochul set the program up for success earlier this week with an invest­ment of $20.5 million in the state budget for program admin­is­tra­tion and future match­ing funds, a step towards secur­ing a more equit­able demo­cracy in the state. The city of Baltimore and multiple Mary­land counties will also imple­ment their new programs soon.

These devel­op­ments come on top of the other 14 states and 19 muni­cip­al­it­ies that have adop­ted public finan­cing systems. Lawmakers and advoc­ates are also push­ing to bring new or strengthened programs to their communit­ies, such as in Oregon, Arizona, and Mary­land.

Public finan­cing is a time-tested policy that exists in several forms, all of which help candid­ates run campaigns focused on the people they are running to repres­ent. In small donor match systems like New York State’s, parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates receive a match of public funds for each eligible low-dollar contri­bu­tion they raise. For example, with a match­ing ratio of six-to-one, a $10 contri­bu­tion would get a $60 public match, making the original dona­tion worth $70 to the candid­ate. Other programs offer qual­i­fy­ing candid­ates block grants or provide resid­ents with vouch­ers that allow them to assign public funds to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates.

In the face of bigger and bigger expendit­ures after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlim­ited and often secret elec­tion spend­ing, public finan­cing is the best consti­tu­tion­ally permiss­ible way to address the influ­ence of big money. The reform has boos­ted the value of small contri­bu­tions from every­day donors, enabling candid­ates to spend their time fundrais­ing among more of the people they seek to repres­ent, as opposed to wealthy megadonors.

Candid­ates have been running publicly financed campaigns for decades in states like Connecti­cut, Arizona, and Maine, as well as major cities, includ­ing New York City, San Fran­cisco, and Los Angeles. These long-running programs show the reform’s adapt­ab­il­ity over time as they main­tain their bene­fits to candid­ates and small donors alike.

Here’s a closer look at how this reform has empowered every­day Amer­ic­ans in recent elec­tions.

Support­ing candid­ates to win without big money

Public finan­cing programs help parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates run for office and win, even in the face of big spend­ing by corpor­a­tions and special interests. In 2020, Wash­ing­ton, DC, held its first city coun­cil and board of educa­tion elec­tions with its Fair Elec­tions Program. Candid­ates who opted in to the program tended to outraise and outspend — and enjoy greater elect­oral success — than their privately financed coun­ter­parts, even without accept­ing large campaign contri­bu­tions from wealthy donors, corpor­a­tions, or PACs.

Programs in New York City and Port­land, Oregon, have also given candid­ates a path to success without wealthy donors. In Portland’s first elec­tions with public finan­cing, candid­ates raised a far higher percent­age of their funds from indi­vidu­als rather than from special interest groups, and two-thirds of compet­it­ive candid­ates opted in to the public finan­cing program.

New York State Attor­ney General Leti­tia James, who ran under the New York City program before taking state office, told the Bren­nan Center, “I would­n’t be where I am today if not for public finan­­cing. I come from a hard­­work­ing family, but not a wealthy one. When I first ran for office, I did not know million­aires, and I did not know those with deep pock­­ets.”

Increas­ing small-donor and constitu­ent involve­ment

Programs encour­age new and more diverse donors to give, boost­ing the civic parti­cip­a­tion our demo­cracy needs to flour­ish. In 2018, during the first cycle of the match­ing program in Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia, the aver­age contri­bu­tion size decreased by 60 percent from the previ­ous elec­tion. Parti­cip­at­ing campaigns also saw more donor parti­cip­a­tion across the city, not just in the wealth­i­est and whitest zip codes. Like­wise, since its 2017 debut, Seattle’s voucher program has disrup­ted the status quo, bring­ing more young people, people of color, and work­ing people into the polit­ical process.

More recently, during the first elec­tion under the program in Wash­ing­ton, DC, publicly financed candid­ates received over twice as many indi­vidual contri­bu­tions on aver­age as nonpar­ti­cip­at­ing candid­ates did in 2020. Fair Elec­tions candid­ates also received much smal­ler contri­bu­tions on aver­age and engaged more new donors and district resid­ents than their privately financed coun­ter­parts. The zip code with the most contri­bu­tions has one of the lowest median incomes in the district and encom­passes some of its most diverse neigh­bor­hoods.

Port­land saw similar bene­fits. Parti­cip­at­ing mayoral candid­ates received, on aver­age, nine times more indi­vidual contri­bu­tions than their nonpar­ti­cip­at­ing coun­ter­parts. Publicly financed candid­ates also received an aver­age contri­bu­tion of $81, 15 times smal­ler than the aver­age contri­bu­tion in 2016. A major­ity of small donors had never given to a candid­ate for city office before. Contrib­ut­ors were also more evenly spread across the city, redu­cing the dispar­ity between lower-income neigh­bor­hoods and wealth­ier areas in the city.

Break­ing down barri­ers to entry

Public finan­cing programs open doors to candid­ates who are women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and work­ing indi­vidu­als. As Arizona State Sen. Victoria Steele put it, “As a Native Amer­ican woman — I am Seneca and Mingo — public finan­cing gave me an advant­age. It’s really hard for anybody to raise money to run for office, but women are gener­ally more disad­vant­aged in rais­ing money for races.” Public fund­ing, though not suffi­cient on its own, helps counter this systemic discrim­in­a­tion.

When Wash­ing­ton, DC, imple­men­ted public finan­cing, the total number of women running for city coun­cil and board of educa­tion increased from 12 to 16, while the total number of candid­ates of color increased from 14 to 38. Half of the indi­vidu­als elec­ted to the coun­cil in 2020 were publicly financed candid­ates, all of whom were people of color. Voters also elec­ted a major­ity female coun­cil for the first time in decades.

New York City’s last city coun­cil elec­tions saw similar trends. Women and people of color who won seats or were compet­it­ive in the primar­ies raised as much, on aver­age, as their white and male coun­ter­parts and relied to similar degrees on small dona­tions and public match­ing funds. Women increased their repres­ent­a­tion on the city coun­cil from 27 percent to 61 percent. People of color, who make up 68 percent of city resid­ents, increased their repres­ent­a­tion from 51 percent to 67 percent. Women of color more than doubled their coun­cil seats.

Better repres­ent­a­tion goes hand in hand with greater respons­ive­ness to constitu­ents’ needs. Publicly financed candid­ates report that their campaign trail conver­sa­tions with constitu­ents inform the bills they intro­duce once elec­ted. New York City Public Advoc­ate Jumaane Willi­ams shared that, with a match, elec­ted offi­cials can raise money while they “speak to people who give $5 and $10 — and that’s all they can afford.”

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The enact­ment and improve­ment of more programs will only add to the body of research demon­strat­ing public finan­cing’s bene­fits for candid­ates and constitu­ents alike. For now, the policy stands as one of the best tools we have for combatting big money in polit­ics and ampli­fy­ing the voices of every­day Amer­ic­ans.