Skip Navigation
Research Report

Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Financing

  • DeNora Getachew
  • Ava Mehta
Published: June 29, 2016


The increasingly dominant role of mega-donors in funding American elections marginalizes the voices of those without access to wealthy donors or independent wealth. But as more than 20 state and local elected officials from all branches of government in 11 states and 6 cities explain in Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Public Financing, public financing systems can help elevate diverse voices and eliminate barriers that prevent diverse candidates from successfully running for office.

Read the Foreword

View on Scribd


In today’s political system, women, people of color, and others who are not independently wealthy or do not have access to wealthy donors face exceptionally high barriers to running for office. Increasingly, candidates and their shadow campaigns rely heavily on financial support from outside spenders, who are often the wealthiest Americans and their business interests. Last year, 158 families provided nearly half of the early contributions to the presidential race. In contrast to the broader electorate, these families “are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters.” The result is that these latter groups, often referred to as the New American Majority, are less likely to be heard by the representatives they elect.

There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that wealthy contributors do not share the priorities of everyday Americans. Affluent Americans have substantially differing views on issues such as the minimum wage, the deficit, job creation, and criminal justice reform. Empirical research indicates that, in a political system dominated by the wealthy, the government’s policy is, at least in certain areas, biased towards the most affluent citizens’ preferences. This lack of equal representation for the views and experiences of all Americans is not just a political problem — it is a civil rights issue.

From our nation’s founding to the present day, Americans have strived to achieve a more participatory and inclusive body politic. Originally, only white male landowners were entitled to vote and therefore have their views reflected in government decision-making. Generations of disenfranchised and marginalized constituencies have sought recognition of their civil and human rights — from abolitionists and suffragists in the 19th century, through the civil rights and equality movements of the 20th century. That struggle continues in the 21st century as advocates push for educational, environmental, health, and socioeconomic equality, as well as democracy and justice reform.

Today, the dominance of big money in our electoral and policy-making process runs contrary to central values of American democracy. The values of our representative democracy must include the ability of all people — regardless of race, gender, income, and socioeconomic status — to seek elected office through a competitive campaign that represents all constituents. Yet that aim is increasingly unachievable in today’s campaign finance regime, which places such outsized importance on large contributions.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the kinds of reforms available to reduce the role of big money in politics. But there are concrete campaign finance reforms that can be accomplished even before jurisprudential change is achieved. And an overwhelming majority of Americans — including 86 percent of women and 84 percent of persons making less than $50,000 a year — are eager for reform. The most important among these potential solutions is public financing of elections.

As explained in the Brennan Center’s State Options for Reform, public financing of elections takes a variety of forms: matching public dollars with contributions from small donors; providing voters with vouchers of public money to contribute to candidates of their choice; distributing block grants of public funds to candidates that meet predetermined fundraising thresholds (clean election systems); and issuing tax rebates to voters who make contributions to campaigns. While public financing systems are not currently available to candidates running for most federal offices, such systems do exist in a variety of states and localities.