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Tips for Campaign Finance Reformers

Democracy in America is not what we would hope. Voting rates are down. Public trust in government is steadily declining. The Senate is a club for white, male millionaires.

Published: October 17, 2003



Democracy in America is not what we would hope. Voting rates are down. Public trust in government is steadily declining. The Senate is a club for white, male millionaires.

Reversing these trends will not be easy. Campaign finance reform is not a silver bullet that will miraculously cure all the ills of our ailing democracy. To the contrary, work must proceed on many fronts: enforcing voting rights, experimenting with alternative electoral systems, organizing communities to participate in the census and redistricting process, registering and mobilizing voters, liberalizing ballot access rules and the list goes on.

The complexity of the problem poses special challenges for reformers. Every organization must limit its focus because no organization can do everything. But if groups are too focused, they risk losing sight of potential conflicts with others, to the ultimate detriment of the movement as a whole.

The guidance offered here is designed to help campaign finance reformers avoid unintentional conflict with groups that advocate for the full and fair voting rights of under-represented communities. The recommendations reflect discussions held at a full-day conference entitled Money and the Politics of Inclusion: The Impact of Campaign Finance Reform on the Representation of Women and People of Color, which was sponsored in May 1999 by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law in conjunction with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the PRLDEF Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. The Brennan Center hopes that campaign finance reformers will take the tips very seriously.


Empirical studies show that African-American candidates have a more difficult time raising funds than white candidates do, even after controlling for factors such as incumbency or legislative leadership position. (There is no comparable literature on Latino or Asian-American candidates.) The studies also show that incumbents (who are disproportionately white and male) generally raise more money than challengers.

Campaign finance systems that offer either full or partial public funding to all qualified candidates can help to reduce these fundraising disadvantages. In a full public funding system, candidates qualify for funds by collecting a certain number of very small contributions or signatures or both. Those who qualify receive a sum of money that is calculated to finance the entire campaign, and they forgo all private contributions.

To ensure that a full public financing system is as inclusive as possible, all residents of a jurisdiction should be permitted to make the small qualifying contributions, not only those who are registered voters. Restricting contributors to registered voters means that permanent resident aliens cannot participate in selecting representatives, even when they are paying taxes, sending their children to public schools, and otherwise have a significant stake in how their community is governed. Since elected officials are supposed to represent everyone in their jurisdiction, not only those who register to vote, campaign finance rules should be designed to enhance constituent participation.

In a partial public funding system, the government may match private contributions beneath a certain level. Alternatively, the government may provide a refund or tax credit for contributions up to a set limit. All current partial public funding systems make funds available only to candidates who voluntarily limit the amount they will spend on their campaigns.

Other ways that states or localities can provide resources to candidates who might otherwise have trouble competing include free or reduced-fee TV or radio time and publicly funded voter guides. Public broadcasting stations and local access or government cable stations can be required to make some time available to candidates. Commercial stations cannot be required to provide time without federal legislation, but some have done so voluntarily as a public service, and time can be purchased with public funds and then made available for candidate advertising or debates.


Voluntary spending limits are ordinarily introduced in exchange for grants of public funds for campaigning or other benefits for candidates. The spending limits can end the arms race that otherwise occurs when candidates feel compelled to raise as much money as possible. If the voluntary system is to work, however, it must provide incentives for candidate participation such as public funding or the right to raise private funds in larger increments. On the other hand, the incentives should not be so enticing as to be irresistible; if candidates are effectively compelled to participate, questions may arise about the constitutionality of the system. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory spending limits are unconstitutional.

Limiting the amount of money spent in a race facilitates competition for candidates who do not have access to wealth. Studies show that challengers can meaningfully compete in electoral campaigns even if they do not raise as much money as incumbents, provided that challengers raise a substantial threshold amount. Limiting the total amount candidates will spend ensures that the threshold is not a constantly rising target.


Candidates supported by African-American, Latino, or Asian-American communities often receive, and in some cases may depend on, out-of-district contributions to fund their campaigns. Particularly when a candidate’s supporters within a district are too poor to afford political contributions and people of color are disproportionately poor limiting fundraising to within the jurisdiction may effectively doom the candidate’s campaign. Moreover, because people of color are usually under-represented in legislatures, the few minority candidates who do succeed in winning public office are often spokespersons for the interests of people who do not reside in their districts. As long as a state or locality has a system of private financing for campaigns, it therefore makes sense as a matter of policy to expand the pool of contributors available to African-American, Latino, and Asian-American candidates rather than contracting it with limits on out-of-district contributions.

Some reformers argue that limits on out-of-district contributions will help disempowered communities by ensuring that representatives are responsive to their constituents, rather than moneyed interests from elsewhere. But in areas where voting is racially polarized, and voter mobilization is essential to electoral success, candidates may need funds from outside their district to finance voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in under-represented communities.


Congress has recently been considering various bills to close the soft money loophole and repair other ruptures in the federal campaign financing system. In 1998, opponents of reform attempted to kill these bills by attaching a series of amendments that would turn the clock back on voting rights and other efforts to improve democracy. For example, one Member of Congress sought to repeal the requirement that states provide for voter registration by mail. Another Representative attempted to ban the use of bilingual voting materials. This year, the opponents have introduced “poison pill” amendments designed to eliminate the right of permanent resident aliens from making campaign contributions and to ban contributions from outside a candidate’s state. Campaign finance reformers should aggressively oppose these amendments, because they would reduce the ability of immigrants and candidates from poor or minority communities to participate in the political process.

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