In a key step toward building a stronger and fairer democracy, Democratic congressional leaders have confirmed that a push for campaign finance reform — including small-donor public financing — will be part of the election-reform package they plan to introduce as their first order of 2019 business.
“We must also empower hard-working Americans in our democracy by building a 21st-century campaign-finance system — combining small-donor incentives and matching support — to increase and multiply the power of small donors,” wrote Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and Rep. John Sarbanes, the Democrats’ point person on democracy reform, in The Washington Post. “Wealthy special interests shouldn’t be able to buy more influence than the workers, consumers and families who should be our priority in Washington.”
Voting, funding political campaigns, and running for office are all different forms of political participation. Just as we need to make sure everyone has equal access to the ballot box, we also need to make sure everyone has a roughly equal ability to participate as a donor or as a candidate. That’s what public financing does.
Public financing programs enable broader participation in our democracy
In the midterm elections earlier this month, voters across the country supported measures to reduce the influence of political money and bolster ethics rules. The results add to polling data that shows consistent and widespread support for campaign spending limits and reducing the role of money in politics. A series of Supreme Court rulings, including Citizens United, have crippled campaign finance laws — and worsened a political system that favors corporations, special interests, and a small group of wealthy Americans.
One key solution: small-donor public financing, which provides multiple matching funds for every small donation given. More broadly, public financing aims to expand access to the political process by making it easier for ordinary citizens to contribute to political campaigns — or even run for office. This increases the diversity of both political donors and candidates, contributing to overall increased participation in the democratic process. The potential inclusion of public financing in H.R.1, the first bill of the legislative session, is a promising step for progress in Congress.
New York could make history by enacting small-donor public financing statewide
There is also growing momentum on a state level for small-donor public financing. This month’s midterm elections led to a shift in power in the New York State Legislature. A coalition of more than 90 organizations — which includes community, labor, faith, and tenant groups — has called for lawmakers to prioritize campaign finance reform, including small-donor public financing of elections. The coalition, organized under the Fair Elections for New York campaign, sent a letter Monday to New York Governor Cuomo and all members of the Legislature.
New York’s campaign finance system has allowed “an exorbitant amount of power to be concentrated in the hands of the very wealthy and well-connected,” says the Fair Elections letter. “This is at the great expense of every day New Yorkers, and even more so for low-income and people of color, who face daily crises around housing, education, health, transportation, a racist criminal justice system, and poor working conditions.”
The letter also calls for a small-donor matching system for candidates in New York’s state elections. The proposed system would be similar to the largely successful public financing program in New York City, which has already been in place for nearly 30 years and which voters opted to expand this month. It would include $6-to-$1 matching on small dollar donations, enforcement, and robust candidate support services that would help candidates to comply with the law.
A story to keep watching
As policymakers prepare to set their agendas for 2019, they have the opportunity to prioritize campaign finance reform, and public financing is a critical piece of that work. The tea leaves from Washington and Albany are promising, but we’ll have to keep a close watch as these efforts unfold and, if necessary, speak up to make sure these items move forward.