The New Strategy for Limiting Money's Role in Elections

The dream of eliminating the influence of large, private donors from the election equation is pretty much dead. Now campaign finance reformers are shifting their focus.
by | August 31, 2017
A democracy voucher in Seattle.
In Seattle, voters get $100 worth of $25 "democracy vouchers" to donate that amount of government money to the candidates of their choice. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

The goals behind the public financing of elections have shifted. The old dream of completely eliminating big, private money from politics has been dashed by Citizens United and other court rulings.

"It's probably not a realistic goal in any case," says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. "People who are interested in politics have many ways of influencing the political system."

Now, the hope among some advocates of publicly financed campaigns is to impose limits on the size and scope of campaign treasuries while increasing citizen involvement. To do that, reformers are promoting the use of matching funds and so-called democracy vouchers, which allow citizens to steer government money directly to the candidates of their choice.

"Advocates see these as a way to circumvent the more nefarious consequences of the Citizens United decision," says Michael G. Miller, a political scientist at Barnard College and author of Subsidizing Democracy: How Public Funding Changes Elections, and How It Can Work in the Future.

The Brennan Center for Justice and Democracy 21 have unveiled a proposal to create matching funds that would greatly amplify small donations to congressional races. If an individual gave $100 to a qualifying candidate, that candidate would also receive $500 in public, taxpayer funds.

"Candidates will have every reason to reach out to donors of modest means instead of exclusively focusing their attention on the kind of fat-cat donors who currently dominate our campaigns," says Adam Skaggs, senior counsel for the Brennan Center.

Matching fund programs are already in place for local elections in jurisdictions such as New York, Los Angeles and Montgomery County, Md. Such programs have increased interest and participation in local races, says Malbin.

"People looking to increase the role of small donors are interested in participation because it's good in and of itself, and people will get more power if they're invested in the political system," Malbin says. "It's got to be about having donors put skin in the game."

In addition to matching funds, reformers are promoting the idea of democracy vouchers.  Seattle voters approved such a plan in 2015, giving voters $100 worth of $25 vouchers to donate to the candidates of their choice. Vouchers are being used this fall for city council and city attorney races and will expand to mayoral elections starting in 2021.

Conservatives have always been skeptical about public financing, viewing subsidies as a form of needless welfare for politicians. Public financing forces taxpayers to underwrite candidates whose views they may find intolerable, says Brian Balfour, executive vice president of the Civitas Institute, a free market think tank in North Carolina.

"There's a moral argument against compelling people to pay for the speech of others, oftentimes candidates with whom they disagree," he says.

Last week, Florida state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a likely GOP candidate for governor next year, called for ending his state's system of public financing.

"You really have to be clueless or just plain selfish to accept money from our state coffers that could go to our schoolchildren, first responders or be put back in the pockets of our taxpayers," Corcoran said.

He called on the state's Constitutional Revision Commission to put the matter before voters in 2018. But they already rejected an attempt to eliminate public campaign funding back in 2010.

The other major criticism that's long been lodged against public financing programs is that they don't actually keep large donors from having an outsized influence in politics. Even in states where public financing is readily available, some candidates in competitive races know they can raise more money in the private market. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, for example, raised $2.4 million for his campaign in 2014, which was double the amount that would have been allowed under the state's public financing program.

Nonetheless, voters seem to like the idea of public financing.

Last November, South Dakota voters approved a democracy voucher program as part of an ethics package. (The package, however was subsequently blocked by the legislature this year.) In 2015, Maine voters approved an increase in funding for the state's so-called clean elections system.

"There's something attractive about people running for office without taking any money from special interests," says Miller.

Before Maine voters increased funding for public campaign financing, the share of state legislative candidates who participated in the clean elections program had plummeted from 81 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2014. Last year, participation rebounded to 64 percent, and five candidates in next year's race for governor have already said they'll use that option.

"Most candidates are pretty satisfied with the program," says Anna Kellar, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. "We did a survey after the election, and almost everyone thought they had enough money."

Kellar and other campaign finance advocates say that providing public funds not only allows but forces candidates to spend more time talking with voters. In order to qualify for public funding in Maine, candidates have to demonstrate community support by collecting a minimum number of $5 contributions (60 for state House candidates, 175 for state Senate candidates).

"They have to get $5 checks," Kellar says, "so that rewards the candidates who are doing retail politics."

The rules are similar in Seattle.

There, candidates who wish to collect democracy vouchers also have to collect some seed money from voters. To qualify, council candidates have to collect 400 signatures and 400 contributions of $10 each. The signatures and the money have to come from the same 400 people -- a stipulation that some candidates say creates a logistical hurdle.

An arguably bigger problem that public funding could create, though, is one that Hisam Goueli had: For his city council campaign, he received nearly $20,000 through the democracy voucher program. But, the money arrived the day before the August primary -- too late to do him any good.

He ended up losing.

Maybe the kinks in the system will be worked out after it's been tried a few times, with money sent out in time to be effective. But Goueli also complains that only candidates who already have strong organizational backing can take full advantage of the program because of the high demands of collecting qualifying signatures.

That seems to run counter to the promise the program held, which was to level the playing field for candidates who may lack deep-pocketed support. The Seattle program has also been challenged in court and police are investigating an alleged case of fraud, in which a candidate is accused of fabricating individual donations in order to receive funding through the voucher system.

The underlying question is whether vouchers or matching funds can succeed in limiting the influence of big donors.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down limits on the amount corporations, unions or individuals could spend independently on campaigns, helping open the floodgates to super PACs with unlimited funds. The following year, the Supreme Court in McComish v. Bennett struck down "trigger funds" that increased public funding for candidates up against free-spending opponents.

Last year, super PACs spent more than $1 billion on elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.