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New Proposal Seeks to Boost the Power of Small Donors After Citizens United

A new proposal shows how a small donor matching fund model — used successfully in New York City, and elsewhere — could work for Congressional elections. A system in which small donations to federal candidates are matched with public funds at a multiple ratio would increase the importance of small donations and increase the incentive for a broader base of voters to participate in funding elections.

August 22, 2012

How a Public Matching Fund Program Can Mobilize Voters
and Change the Way We Finance Campaigns

Contact: Seth Hoy,, 646–292–8369; Jeanine Plant-Chirlin,, 646–292–8322

New York, NY –To counter the outsized role of big money in politics after Citizens United, a new plan to boost the power of small donors in federal elections was issued today by the Brennan Center for Justice and Democracy 21.

The two nonpartisan groups propose a program that would augment the role of modest donations through multiple matching funds and take advantage of recent breakthroughs in Internet and social media fundraising in presidential campaigns. The report is the first to show how a small donor matching fund model — used successfully in New York City, and elsewhere — could work for Congressional elections.

The proposal places citizens in complete control over the distribution of public funds to candidates and the amounts they receive. Public funds would be distributed based on the ability of candidates to show on an ongoing basis continuing support from small donors in their states.

The proposal is issued just days before the Democratic and Republican national conventions — as Super PACs and political non-profits are spending and raising unprecedented sums on behalf of candidates in the most expensive presidential race in history.

“In the Super PAC era, a small donor public financing program is more urgent than ever,” said Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice. “This is an innovative reform that would maximize participation in the political process. And with Internet breakthroughs in fundraising coupled with multiple matching funds, it could have a revolutionary impact on the way we finance campaigns in this country."

“A successful small donor empowerment program will restore citizens to their rightful preeminent place in our democracy,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “The small donor program will greatly dilute the role and importance of influence-seeking money, reduce the opportunities for government corruption and provide candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns without having to sell their souls to their funders. The battle for the small donor revolution in American politics will begin on the day after Election Day 2012.”

“The small donor matching program will empower regular citizens in federal elections and transform candidates into agents of civic participation,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center and co-author of the report. ”By focusing on small donations, the program will encourage a larger and more diverse group of citizens to become engaged in the political process and restore average voters to their rightful role in our Democracy.”

The proposed small donor empowerment program is strictly voluntary and would increase participation in federal elections. Core elements include:

  • A 5 to 1 match on in-state contributions up to $250. Donors could give larger contributions, but only the first $250 would be matched. So, a donation of $250 would yield $1,250 in matching funds for a total of $1,500.
  • Reducing individual contribution limits by half for participating candidates. The existing limit of $2,500 per contributor (per election) would continue to apply to candidates who chose not to participate in the small donor matching program. For candidates who did participate, the maximum individual contribution would be reduced by 50 percent, to $1,250 per election.
  • A cap on public funds available per race—$2 million for a House candidate and $10 million for a Senate candidate—but no expenditure limits for candidates. Even after receiving the maximum public funds, candidates would be able to raise (and spend) additional funds privately—subject to the lower contribution limits applicable to participating candidates. Spending limits are not viable in the post Citizens United world of unlimited contributions to outside spending groups.
  • A qualifying threshold to ensure that public funds were not disbursed to uncompetitive or marginal candidates. Before becoming eligible for public funds, House candidates would need to raise $40,000 from at least 400 in-state donors, and Senate candidates would need to raise the same amounts times the number of congressional districts in their states.
  • Unlimited coordinated party expenditures in support of candidates, but only from funds the parties raised from contributions limited to no more than $1,250 per donor per year. This would strengthen the ability of candidates to respond to outside spending campaigns against them.
  • Effective disclosure and enforcement to ensure the program was effectively and efficiently administered, and to ensure that the program is not defrauded.
  • An adequate and reliable funding stream to ensure adequate public matching funds and guarantee that the program remains solvent.

“To be sure, this approach does not end all private fundraising or spending by wealthy or independent groups,” said Adam Skaggs. “But public matching funds for small donations change the equation, encouraging candidates to rely more on small, non-corrupting donations than they do in traditionally funded races.”

To learn more about campaign finance reforms, check out this report, related blogs, and other resources from the Brennan Center.

To set up an interview with one of the Center’s campaign finance experts, contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin (, 646–292–8322) or Seth Hoy (, 646–292–8369).