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.