Skip Navigation

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.