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Public Campaign Financing Is a Bright Spot in the Shadow of Citizens United

The reform remains a powerful antidote to the corrosive effects of big money in politics unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court decision.

Ten years ago, Citizens United opened the floodgates to essen­tially unchecked polit­ical spend­ing by megadonors and corpor­ate interests, drown­ing out the voices of every­day Amer­ic­ans. In the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, fewer than 5,000 donors provided over half of all campaign fund­ing, while money from the 5 million donors who gave less than $200 made up just over one-fifth of dona­tions. Power dispro­por­tion­ately rests in the hands of those who can pay. It’s no wonder that most Amer­ic­ans are deeply dissat­is­fied with the state of our nation’s campaign finance laws.  

But even in the face of unlim­ited spend­ing, there are mean­ing­ful steps we can take to strengthen our demo­cracy — the most power­ful of which is public campaign finan­cing.

Public finan­cing comes in differ­ent forms, includ­ing systems where small-dollar contri­bu­tions are matched at a multiple rate with public funds. For example, with a match­ing ratio of $6-to-$1, a $10 contri­bu­tion would get a $60 public match. This makes contri­bu­tions from small donors more mean­ing­ful to candid­ates. Other programs give candid­ates block grants or provide resid­ents with vouch­ers to donate to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates. 

At the federal level, a small-donor match­ing model is cent­ral to the demo­cracy reform bill H.R. 1, which has been passed by the House and is now pending before the Senate. Cities and states are continu­ing to embrace public finan­cing, with over a dozen juris­dic­tions adopt­ing or strength­en­ing programs in the last decade alone. They range from long-running programs in New York City, Arizona, and Connecti­cut to recently enacted ones in the District of Columbia and Denver. 

Evid­ence of public finan­cing’s bene­fits keeps coming. Here’s a closer look at why we’re hope­ful this reform will continue to put power back into the hands of every­day Amer­ic­ans.

Coun­ter­ing corpor­ate and special-interest spend­ing 

Public finan­cing helps give grass­roots candid­ates a fight­ing chance, even against record-setting spend­ing by corpor­a­tions and special interests. In 2018, candid­ates who parti­cip­ated in Mont­gomery County, Maryland’s new small-donor match­ing system raised money from an aver­age of 96 percent more indi­vidual donors than candid­ates who opted out of the program.

This wasn’t a fluke. As we’ve seen else­where, public finan­cing gives candid­ates an import­ant altern­at­ive to corpor­ate money: every­day people. Take Seattle, where a new program gives resid­ents four $25 vouch­ers to support parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates who agree to abide by certain rules. The city’s 2019 city coun­cil elec­tions captured national atten­tion as Amazon and other corpor­ate interests poured millions into races support­ing pro-busi­ness candid­ates. Inde­pend­ent groups spent more on those elec­tions than in the previ­ous two decades combined. But even with such jaw-drop­ping infu­sions of cash, of the six races with heavy corpor­ate expendit­ures against candid­ates with grass­roots support, the publicly financed candid­ates won four. 

Increas­ing small-donor and constitu­ent involve­ment

Public finan­cing programs have inspired greater parti­cip­a­tion from more — and more diverse — small donors and constitu­ents. A program in Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia, went into effect in 2018, and data from that year’s elec­tion shows that the reform is chan­ging the way campaigns fundraise. With public finan­cing, the aver­age contri­bu­tion dropped from $198 in the 2014 local elec­tions to $78 in 2018. The program also sparked higher donor parti­cip­a­tion rates across the city. Compared to previ­ous elec­tions, more donors in every zip code of the city gave in 2018. This growth in parti­cip­a­tion was “not just in wealthy neigh­bor­hoods with major­ity white popu­la­tions,” a recent analysis found. And data on Mont­gomery County’s public finan­cing program showed publicly financed candid­ates rely­ing more on smal­ler contri­bu­tions than their privately financed coun­ter­parts.

Simil­arly, after vouch­ers were intro­duced for Seattle’s 2017 elec­tions, the share of campaign funds coming from small contri­bu­tions of $250 or less grew from 48 percent in 2013 to 87 percent in 2017. People of color, women, young people, and lower-income resid­ents were also better repres­en­ted in the pool of voucher donors to the city coun­cil and city attor­ney candid­ates than in the pool of cash donors to mayoral candid­ates, who could not parti­cip­ate in the program in that elec­tion. 

Break­ing barri­ers to entry

For candid­ates who don’t have deep-pock­eted connec­tions, public finan­cing can help break down seem­ingly insur­mount­able barri­ers to running for office. This year in Wash­ing­ton, DC, public funds will, for the first time, match small contri­bu­tions made to candid­ates running for local office five-to-one. These match­ing funds have made a crit­ical differ­ence to first-time candid­ates. As a publicly financed DC coun­cil candid­ate running against an oppon­ent backed by many large contrib­ut­ors put it, the program “is allow­ing for more candid­ates who are repres­ent­at­ive of the city and from all differ­ent back­grounds to have a fight­ing chance.” 

More programs are slated to launch in the next few years in places like Suffolk County, New York (2021); Denver, Color­ado (2021); Howard County, Mary­land (2022); and Prince George’s County, Mary­land (2026). In Decem­ber 2019, New York passed a statewide public finan­cing program, mark­ing the first time since Citizens United a state has done so (the previ­ous one was Connecti­cut in 2005). The new law will go into effect start­ing with the 2024 state legis­lat­ive elec­tions and presents a much-needed change in a state where big donors have long called the tune.

To be sure, public finan­cing won’t enable candid­ates to spend on the level of the wealth­i­est corpor­ate interests, and it won’t stop big spend­ing in elec­tions. But it can pave the way for candid­ates — and voters — to counter the influ­ence of big money.