Electoral Competition and Low Contribution Limits

May 4, 2009

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Dr. Stratmann's Academic Papers
Brennan Center's Analysis of Maine Senate Elections
About the authors

Electoral competition is essential to democracy. Yet the incumbency rate in state-house legislative campaigns is nearly 95 percent. This report examines campaign contribution limits and the impact limits can have on electoral competition.

The research on which this report is based was inspired by a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned low contribution limits. The data presented here refutes the Court’s assumptions that low contribution limits damage challengers and shows that the lowest contribution limits, those set at $500 or below, enhance challengers’ ability to campaign against incumbents in state legislative races.

Though public financing systems also increase electoral competition, the Brennan Center’s research suggests that incumbents nonetheless continue to opt for public financing systems.

Of course, enhanced competition under low limits is only one factor to be considered. Competition, after all, is one key goal in electoral reform, but not the only one. We may wish also to encourage citizen participation and voter engagement. But if we are looking for reasons not to enact low limits, a deleterious impact on competition is not one of them. For this reason, the Supreme Court was wrong in Randall v. Sorrell.

Our joint findings make it plain: low contribution limits and public financing substantially narrow the gap between incumbents and challengers. These reforms can be mutually enhancing as reasonable contribution limits are central to a well-functioning public financing system. Incumbency will continue to provide electoral advantages. However, decreasing the vote margins between votes cast for incumbents and their challengers signals greater electoral competiveness and, as such, strengthens democracy.

Click to download PDF of report

Dr. Stratmann's Academic Papers

How Close is Fundraising, May 2009
Public Financing, May 2009
On Low Contribution Limits, May 2009

Brennan Center's Analysis of Maine Senate Elections

Click here to download the PDF.

About the Authors

Ms. Torres-Spelliscy earned her B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1997, specializing in Afro-American Studies. She earned her J.D. from Columbia Law School in 2001. Before joining the Brennan Center she worked at the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP. She is the author of Housing in the Heartland: An Examination of the Hollman v. Cisneros Consent Decree, 17 Nat'l Black L.J. 98-123 (2003), and most recently co-authored along with Ari Weisbard What Albany Could Learn from New York City: A Model of Meaningful Campaign Finance Reform in Action in 1 Albany Gov't L.R. 194 (2008).

Mr. Kahlil Williams is a former Policy Analyst in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where he specialized in redistricting reform, minority voting rights, and campaign finance reform. Mr. Williams worked for Congressman Chaka Fattah as a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow, and served as a summer intern at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, assisting in the organization’s efforts to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Williams is currently a candidate for a J.D. at Columbia and a Ph. D. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Thomas Stratmann is Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He has worked extensively on issues of campaign finance reform, and has analyzed the impact of campaign contributions on congressional decisions, campaign spending in election campaigns, legislative politics, and interest groups. He has testified in court cases on campaign finance reform issues. His research has been published in top economic and political science journals.