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Faces of Small Donor Public Financing 2021

Summary: Elected officials who benefited from public campaign financing explain why it’s a boon for democracy across the nation.

Published: March 11, 2021
small donor public financing
Doug Chayka


In recent years, the Bren­nan Center has inter­viewed dozens of elec­ted offi­cials about fundrais­ing, and we repeatedly hear one thing, which has been confirmed by academic stud­ies: the campaign finance arms race forces them to spend too much time rais­ing big contri­bu­tions. This in turn reduces the time they can spend directly pursu­ing the goals that made them run in the first place, like serving the public, accom­plish­ing policy reform, or pursu­ing personal ambi­tion.

For many elec­ted offi­cials, fundrais­ing for their next campaign requires hours of phone calls to lists of wealthy indi­vidu­als or fraught stra­tegic decisions about whether voting a partic­u­lar way will anger one moneyed special interest or another. The typical elec­ted offi­cial dislikes fundrais­ing duties and would rather spend time hear­ing from constitu­ents and serving their needs.


The same fundrais­ing pres­sures limit who can run for office in the first place, acting as a filter that inhib­its diversity in elec­ted bodies. When someone explores a possible run, the first ques­tion they are often asked is how they will be able to raise enough money for a viable campaign. The abil­ity to fundraise, which is facil­it­ated by access to wealth, has become a litmus test that can dissuade many aspir­ing candid­ates. Collect­ing large dona­tions is easier for lawyers than organ­izers, despite the broad community connec­tions of the latter. White, male candid­ates dispro­por­tion­ately have a head start in the big money race, while barri­ers posed by fundrais­ing have contrib­uted to the under­rep­res­ent­a­tion of women, people of color, and partic­u­larly women of color in candid­ate pools.

Mean­while, the voters who see big donors spend­ing millions on elec­tions may conclude that big money gets results in polit­ics and there’s no point in parti­cip­at­ing. Even with greater engage­ment from small donors in recent cycles, big donors are still respons­ible for the lion’s share of campaign money. In 2020, small donors gave a record-break­ing $4 billion to federal races. This sum, donated by at least 20 million people, only amounts to 23 percent of federal elec­tion fund­ing. They were outspent by a much smal­ler number of megadonors — “mega” indic­at­ing contri­bu­tions over $10,000 — who collect­ively gave $5 billion.

Wealth is a signi­fic­ant barrier to parti­cip­a­tion for candid­ates and donors alike. A system like this, domin­ated by big money, results in an unrep­res­ent­at­ive govern­ment that priv­ileges the interests of a wealthy few.

To begin to address these deep-rooted prob­lems, lawmakers across the coun­try are turn­ing to the most power­ful campaign finance reform avail­able since the Supreme Court tipped the scales toward megadonors in Citizens United. Public campaign finan­cing offers candid­ates the choice to drop out of the big money chase and run compet­it­ive campaigns focused on contact with constitu­ents rather than call lists of big donors and special interests.

Over the last 10 years, more than a dozen juris­dic­tions have either adop­ted new public finan­cing systems or strengthened exist­ing ones, adding to a list of programs that have been oper­at­ing for decades. These systems are avail­able in state or local elec­tions across the coun­try, from small towns to states and large cities. In 2020, New York became the first state to enact a statewide public finan­cing program since Citizens United. And most prom­in­ently, the House of Repres­ent­at­ives has passed a congres­sional public finan­cing program twice as part of the For the People Act.

Public finan­cing of elec­tions can take on vari­ous forms. Small-donor match­ing systems offer candid­ates public funds that multiply the value of small contri­bu­tions. For example, under the program in Mont­gomery County, Mary­land, which matches the smal­lest dona­tions for county coun­cil and exec­ut­ive races at a 4:1 rate, a contri­bu­tion of $10 becomes worth $50 to the candid­ate. Another type of program, often called clean elec­tions, offers candid­ates block grants of public money once they qual­ify and prohib­its them from rais­ing addi­tional private funds. Finally, voucher systems provide constitu­ents with vouch­ers worth a specified dollar amount to give to the candid­ates of their choice, who then receive public funds in that amount.

Thou­sands of candid­ates — incum­bents and newcomers; Demo­crats, Repub­lic­ans, and inde­pend­ents — have used these systems to run for office, empower­ing untold numbers of small donors. With a combined five decades of imple­ment­a­tion, just two of the largest juris­dic­tions, Arizona and New York City, have publicly financed almost 2,000 candid­a­cies. Many offi­cials — both legis­lat­ive and exec­ut­ive — whose elec­tions were publicly financed repres­ent one million constitu­ents or more. The stor­ies of these publicly financed candid­ates paint a picture of a reform that makes for a health­ier demo­cracy.

In 2016, the Bren­nan Center published Break­ing Down Barri­ers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Finan­cing, featur­ing firsthand testi­mony from a bipar­tisan set of elec­ted offi­cials from across the coun­try. Now, for this report, we inter­viewed a new set of elec­ted offi­cials, from both parties, with exper­i­ence running on public finan­cing, many from newly imple­men­ted programs such as those in Seattle, Wash­ing­ton; Mont­gomery County, Mary­land; and Wash­ing­ton, DC.

As the number of public finan­cing systems has grown, so have the ranks of candid­ates and elec­ted offi­cials who can attest to their impact. This report features reflec­tions from indi­vidual candid­ates, but they speak to common bene­fits of the reform.

Transforming Fundraising Into Constituent Contact

In contrast to tradi­tion­ally funded candid­ates who typic­ally raise big checks from a small group of wealthy donors, those who use public finan­cing can spend more time in the community as they raise the money they need to run their campaigns. Small-donor multiple match­ing programs, in partic­u­lar, reward candid­ates for time spent with constitu­ents who can’t afford to give big dona­tions. Parti­cipants report focus­ing on door knock­ing, house parties, barbeques, and — during the pandemic — virtual events for small groups online. They emphas­ize hear­ing from a broader base of constitu­ents while on the campaign trail. And those who repres­ent geograph­ic­ally large areas are able to cover much more ground. Publicly financed candid­ates reach out to communit­ies that would get little to no atten­tion from a tradi­tional fundraiser, like students, public hous­ing resid­ents, and lower income constitu­ents.

Will Jawando

Will Jawando

At-Large Coun­cil­mem­ber, Mont­gomery County, Mary­land

First elec­ted: 2018
Repres­ents: 1.1 million people
Before running for office: govern­ment and community activ­ist

“It’s a virtu­ous cycle, where the voter is empowered and the candid­ate is empowered and incentiv­ized to talk to every­day people. The match incentiv­ized the small house party, the small conver­sa­tion with a resid­ent who is from your juris­dic­tion, who can actu­ally vote for you. From the voter’s perspect­ive, they then became more power­ful and more influ­en­tial in getting the ear of the people who are running to repres­ent them, which is what you want. You want us to be listen­ing to the largest amount of people as possible — and obvi­ously through our own lens of our values and what we think should happen, we make our own final decisions on how we vote or how we move forward — but you want to have a wide level of input and you want that to be a diverse array of folks. I know that we had over a hundred house parties. I know several of my colleagues did the same.”

Joyce Maker

Joyce Maker

Former State Senator and Repres­ent­at­ive, Maine

First elec­ted to state house: 2010
Repres­en­ted: over 37,000 people
Before running for office: college admin­is­trator and local elec­ted offi­cial

“Collect­ing $5 dona­tions is better than asking busi­nesses and organ­iz­a­tions for money. It’s a one-on-one way to do it. It’s a better way of running for office. It’s hard for me to ask for $5, let alone a thou­sand dollars. But I do think it’s import­ant if you’re going to run.

And people parti­cip­ate more with public finan­cing. I explained to donors how import­ant it was that I could listen to all people, because you can collect from all parties. And once you’re elec­ted, you repres­ent all parties. And I felt very good about that. Some­times the party will say, ‘You have to do this,’ but I would say, ‘No, I have to listen to every­body once I’m elec­ted.’”

Evan Glass

Evan Glass

At-Large Coun­cil­mem­ber, Mont­gomery County, Mary­land

Repres­ents: 1.1 million people
First openly LGBTQ+ member of Mont­gomery County Coun­cil
Before running for office: journ­al­ist and nonprofit exec­ut­ive

“The public finan­cing system encour­ages small intim­ate gath­er­ings, and it is so refresh­ing to have one-on-one time with a voter rather than trying to raise money in a back room or a board­room. It’s a better way to campaign and it’s a better way to govern. And it’s the clean way as well. I’ve done both and was able to fundraise under both — and I much prefer public finan­cing. In order to success­fully parti­cip­ate in public finan­cing, you need solid roots in the community because that’s the only way you’re going to tap into the large network that you need to be success­ful.”

Promoting Diversity in Candidate Pools and Elected Bodies

Many people with good ideas and broad support in their communit­ies decide not to run because they see fundrais­ing as an insur­mount­able obstacle. The aver­age winning campaign for a U.S. House seat in 2018 cost $2 million. Even at the state and local level, the price tag for a success­ful campaign can be daunt­ing. In 2020, the aver­age winning campaign for the Ohio State Senate, for example, cost more than $650,000. Such amounts seem unat­tain­able to those who are not inde­pend­ently wealthy and don’t have access to personal or profes­sional networks of afflu­ent people. Work­ing people respons­ible for rent and child­care expenses are less likely to have the option to quit their jobs to campaign full-time. People of color and women are dispro­por­tion­ately discour­aged by the demands of rais­ing large campaign chests.

This wealth primary keeps untold numbers of prom­ising candid­ates from ever throw­ing their hats in the ring. That narrows voters’ choices at the ballot and makes elec­ted bodies unrep­res­ent­at­ive of the people they serve.

But public finan­cing changes who can run and win. It empowers people with wide support and connec­tions in the community to turn those assets into campaign funds. It supports the candid­a­cies of women and people of color, who tend to rely more on small donors when they run for office. To be sure, this reform does not by itself resolve the racial, gender, and socioeco­nomic inequit­ies in our polit­ical system, but it repres­ents a mean­ing­ful step toward more repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy. Many elec­ted offi­cials — work­ing people, renters, community activ­ists — say they never could have run without public finan­cing.

Letitia James

Leti­tia James

Attor­ney General, New York State

Previ­ously elec­ted to: New York City Coun­cil and Public Advoc­ate
First woman of color to hold statewide office in New York
Before running for office: public defender

“I would­n’t be where I am today if not for public finan­cing. I come from a hard­work­ing family, but not a wealthy one. When I first ran for office, I did not know million­aires, and I did not know those with deep pock­ets — but I knew those who wanted to have a voice in govern­ment and have a seat at the table. The public finan­cing system in New York City gave me the oppor­tun­ity to compete and succeed, allow­ing me to repres­ent indi­vidu­als whose voices have been histor­ic­ally ignored and who wanted a repres­ent­at­ive who looked like them, who under­stood their values, and recog­nized their struggles. It’s imper­at­ive that our govern­ment be reflect­ive of the people it repres­ents, and public finan­cing is a crit­ical tool to ensure that more people from diverse back­grounds have the oppor­tun­ity to hold elec­ted office and serve our communit­ies.”

Gordon Mar

Gordon Mar

Member of Board of Super­visors, San Fran­cisco

First elec­ted: 2018
Repres­ents: approx­im­ately 80,000 people
Before running for office: community and labor organ­izer

“I’m not someone who can call on many rich friends and ask for $500 dona­tions, which is the maximum contri­bu­tion amount here in San Fran­cisco. But I’m someone who has worked with communit­ies on the ground, here in our city and in the Bay Area for decades, and those community members could pitch in small dona­tions. We raised small amounts from lots of people and ulti­mately, campaign dona­tions are invest­ments from the donors in what outcomes they want to see in their lives. Public finan­cing means invest­ments from lower-income people can pay off too, in that more people connec­ted to low-income communit­ies and grass­roots organ­iz­a­tions can run and win. It funda­ment­ally changes access to public office for the better.”

Christina Henderson

Christina Hende­r­son

At-Large Coun­cil­mem­ber, District of Columbia

First elec­ted: 2020
Repres­ents: over 700,000 people
Before running for office: govern­ment and educa­tion policy expert

“I’m a Black woman in DC. I’m not inde­pend­ently wealthy — my friends are in public service, or teach­ers, or work at nonprofits, or govern­ment. I don’t know a lot of folks who are able to just very easily write $1,500 checks or $1,200 checks. . . . And public finan­cing lowers the threshold to allow you to compete. But I also feel like it takes some things off the table so that people are actu­ally listen­ing to your message.

As a first-time candid­ate, there is a whole conver­sa­tion of whether you have the estab­lished donor list to raise money to be able to compete. . . . But for much of the campaign I was able to keep pace [with candid­ates who didn’t use public finan­cing], and I actu­ally think that demon­strated to folks this can work, you can compete.”

Victoria Steele

Victoria Steele

State Senator, Arizona

Formerly served in Arizona House
Repres­ents: over 200,000 people
Before running for office: profes­sional coun­selor and journ­al­ist

“As a Native Amer­ican woman — I am Seneca and Mingo — public finan­cing gave me an advant­age. It’s really hard for anybody to raise money to run for office, but women are gener­ally more disad­vant­aged in rais­ing money for races. A lot of us are not at the table where the big money is. And women don’t know as many people that have the money. So just by virtue of that, we’re start­ing at a defi­cit in fundrais­ing. It is tougher.

Clean elec­tions give us a chance to level the play­ing field so that we’re not getting elec­ted based on how much money is in our bank account and how rich our friends are. Clean elec­tions level the play­ing field so that you run on your ideas, you run on your abil­ity, you run on your person­al­ity, you run on who you are and what you have done and what you can do, and not the number on your bank account.”

Recruiting New Donors and Energizing Grassroots

Only a small frac­tion of Amer­ic­ans ever donate to a polit­ical campaign. Many people assume the world of big money polit­ics means they can’t afford an amount that could make a differ­ence, and some can barely afford to give anything at all.

Public finan­cing programs tackle this prob­lem by encour­aging people to give to the candid­ates they believe in, even when they can’t afford a large dona­tion. Candid­ates recruit donors that have never given before when they can say that a small dona­tion, or assign­ment of a voucher, makes for a mean­ing­ful boost to the campaign. Exist­ing programs have increased parti­cip­a­tion from small donors in communit­ies of color or with low incomes. Virtu­ally all the candid­ates we inter­viewed spoke about attract­ing first-time donors, often from histor­ic­ally under­rep­res­en­ted communit­ies like young people, work­ing people, immig­rants, and refugees.

The grass­roots fundrais­ing that public finan­cing enables also serves as an organ­iz­ing tool. Candid­ates told us that small donors go on to conduct their own fundraisers for the campaign, which more people are will­ing to do when the ask is for a small dona­tion. And once people give, they are more likely to parti­cip­ate in other ways, from volun­teer­ing for the campaign to turn­ing out to vote on Elec­tion Day.

Carlos Menchaca

Carlos Menchaca

Coun­cil­mem­ber, New York City

Repres­ents: over 150,000 people
First Mexican-Amer­ican elec­ted offi­cial in New York State
Before running for office: govern­ment and community organ­izer

“For one of my first fundraisers in 2013, I walked into a Mexican restaur­ant and went to the back room and there were all these famil­ies there. A group of Mexican moms were also there and excited to meet me. It was all done in Span­ish and the maximum amount they had was $20. I connect to that because these were famil­ies that have never given to any candid­ate and here I was, enga­ging them. I’m still so over­whelmed by that exper­i­ence. In another world where there was no campaign finance like this, they would have never been asked to give. Their money wasn’t a lot, but it didn’t have to be a lot, and it’s just a game changer.

They became part of the campaign and were inves­ted for it all. Those same famil­ies, they were now in it for life. When the campaign was over, when we went into parti­cip­at­ory budget­ing, it was the same famil­ies that said, ‘We’re going to do canvassing, we’re going to go door knock­ing, we’re going to get votes for parti­cip­at­ory budget­ing in the spring.’ They were now part of the system and they were empowered.”

Teresa Mosqueda

Teresa Mosqueda

At-Large Coun­cil­mem­ber, Seattle

First elec­ted: 2017
Repres­ents: over 750,000 people
Before running for office: labor union polit­ical director

“Not only did we hear people say, ‘Hey, this is the first time I’ve ever donated,’ but the map shows it so expli­citly. . . . If you look at the contri­bu­tions for the at-large city coun­cil seats like mine, you saw people donat­ing in the South End, histor­ic­ally Black and Brown areas of the city, in the North End, a histor­ic­ally lower income area of our city. You saw people who were donat­ing across the city in areas that had been previ­ously redlined and have the exist­ing consequences of redlining. So, you see higher numbers of renters and people of color who are contrib­ut­ing in ways that they hadn’t before.”

Brad Lander

Brad Lander

Coun­cil­mem­ber, New York City

First elec­ted: 2009
Repres­ents: over 150,000 people
Before running for office: urban plan­ning and community devel­op­ment

“Public elec­tion finan­cing that incentiv­izes small dollar grass­roots fundrais­ing means that candid­ates don’t just spend their time talk­ing to people who can afford to give $2,000. Instead, what’s incentiv­ized is talk­ing to every­day people about parti­cip­at­ing in demo­cracy, and getting them to organ­ize their friends. I like asking people to raise for me even better than I like asking them to contrib­ute and obvi­ously way better than I like asking them to write a large check. A small-donor public match gives far more people a chance to mean­ing­fully contrib­ute to a campaign. And all the evid­ence shows that once people have contrib­uted, they’re much more likely to vote and parti­cip­ate in other ways and in those elec­tions.”

Toni Boucher

Toni Boucher

Former State Senator and Repres­ent­at­ive, Connecti­cut

Used public finan­cing for 5 state senate campaigns
Repres­en­ted: over 99,000 people
Before running for office: busi­ness leader and local elec­ted offi­cial

“When finan­cing campaigns, you want to have parti­cip­a­tion on the part of your constitu­ents and voters because that gets them involved and shows whether you have the support to ulti­mately win. The prob­lem with private fund­ing is that it does­n’t allow the common person to get into the process, parti­cip­ate as fully in the process. Candid­ates spend a lot more time fundrais­ing, and there’s not enough time to campaign, to get your message out, to fully engage the public. The appeal to me of public finan­cing was: we can get more of the common man and woman to parti­cip­ate in the system. With public finan­cing, you’re not asking for a dona­tion, you’re meet­ing with people to talk about what’s on their minds, what the issues are. Often­times I got great ideas from constitu­ents on a bill proposal.”

Strengthening Representation and Responsiveness in Governance

Tradi­tional fundrais­ing involves call time target­ing wealthy donors who frequently reside outside the candid­ate’s district or state. The policy pref­er­ences of the very rich system­at­ic­ally differ from the major­ity of the public. At a minimum, this means elec­ted offi­cials spend a lot of time listen­ing to the concerns of a skewed slice of the popu­la­tion. Offi­cials eyeing reelec­tion may worry what the moneyed special interests will think of their actions — or they may know all too well after hear­ing from lobby­ists and their clients, who happen to also be big campaign donors.

Public finan­cing offers another way. The public can see that their elec­ted repres­ent­at­ives aren’t work­ing to keep big donors happy. Offi­cials can stand up and declare they are beholden only to a broad swath of their constitu­ents. And because it incentiv­izes grass­roots fundrais­ing and the constitu­ent conver­sa­tions that go along with it, public finan­cing strengthens the connec­tion between elec­ted repres­ent­at­ives and their constitu­ents.

The reform opens the door to new policies prior­it­ized by the communit­ies that fuel publicly financed campaigns. Offi­cials told us public finan­cing played a role in the intro­duc­tion of legis­la­tion address­ing the concerns of people exper­i­en­cing food insec­ur­ity, tenants, domestic work­ers, racial justice advoc­ates, envir­on­mental justice activ­ists, and other people often left out of policy decisions.

Jumaane Williams

Jumaane Willi­ams

Public Advoc­ate, New York City

New York City Coun­cil­mem­ber from 2010–2019
Repres­ents: over 8 million people
Before running for office: community organ­izer

“In govern­ing and policy, the biggest thing is that public finan­cing allows people who will push the envel­ope. There are some policies that get put on the back burner because people are more focused on other things. You have folks who are just making decisions based on people they speak to. But the public finan­cing system allows folks to listen to the masses of people because it spreads out who has the abil­ity to touch elec­ted offi­cials. You can speak to people who give $5 and $10 — and that’s all they can afford — just as much as people who can cut a $2,000 check. And it’s import­ant to be able to balance that out for the better­ment of the entire city.”

Hannah Pingree

Hannah Pingree

Former Major­ity Leader and Speaker of the House of Repres­ent­at­ives, Maine

Served: 2002–2010
Repres­en­ted: 9,000 people
Young­est woman to be elec­ted both major­ity leader and speaker of the Maine House

“Hearing from thou­sands of people who are just normal people in your district will make a differ­ence in how you govern. I spent almost my entire legis­lat­ive career fight­ing with the chem­ical industry. . . . And I was a part of national groups of envir­on­mental legis­lat­ors talk­ing about these bills and a lot of other legis­lat­ors said, ‘How do you pass that? The chem­ical lobby in our state is so power­ful!’ And clearly in Maine, they would give money to some members of lead­er­ship, they would give money to people running tradi­tional campaigns possibly, but the vast major­ity of rank-and-file members didn’t inter­act with those lobby­ists, and they weren’t getting money from them. . . . And that played out on a number of things: tax policy, envir­on­mental bills, budget decisions. You’ve seen Maine in the last 20 years pass a lot of first- or among the first-in-the-nation bills.”

Gabe Albornoz

Gabe Albornoz

At-Large Coun­cil­mem­ber and Coun­cil Vice Pres­id­ent, Mont­gomery County, Mary­land

First elec­ted: 2018
Repres­ents: 1.1 million people
Before running for office: director of Mont­gomery County’s Recre­ation Depart­ment

“Over the course of the primary local elec­tion cycle in 2017, I visited 117 differ­ent living rooms and received contri­bu­tions anywhere from $10 to the maximum $150. I haven’t forgot­ten any of those conver­sa­tions and I carry them with me to this day. And so, as we legis­late now, those conver­sa­tions come back into play and you connect a lot more dots that way, which I think provides a perspect­ive and a perch that I would like to think makes me a better legis­lator. One of the first items that my coun­cil colleagues and I passed was a racial equity and social justice bill which now mandates the coun­cil to review the impacts of all legis­la­tion, both budget­ar­ily and legis­lat­ively, and its effects on communit­ies of color and those communit­ies that have been dispro­por­tion­ately impacted. And so, I think that constitu­ents who contrib­uted to not just my campaign, but to my colleagues as well, are paying atten­tion and remain engaged to ensure that we create a more just and inclus­ive community.”

Jason Rojas

Jason Rojas

Major­ity Leader, House of Repres­ent­at­ives, Connecti­cut

First elec­ted to House: 2008
Repres­ents: 23,000 people
Before elec­tion to the House: local elec­ted offi­cial

“The program that we have here in Connecti­cut gave the oppor­tun­ity for me to be held account­able, and we all should be held account­able more often. If you really believe in the process, in the role we’re supposed to play in our soci­ety, we should want to be held account­able. I should have to prove it to people that I’m worthy of being reelec­ted, given the magnitude of the decisions that I have to make. Public finan­cing creates oppor­tun­ity for differ­ent people from all walks of life, and in partic­u­lar those under­rep­res­en­ted popu­la­tions that don’t have all the same oppor­tun­it­ies that mostly white men, but even Latino males like myself, have to run for public office. There is a diversity of opin­ion and perspect­ives that are now allowed to access the process. When you have people from all walks of life being able to parti­cip­ate in the process, you end up with a better public policy in a lot of ways.”