Are you sick of Big Money in politics? Are you tired of good candidates without money being tsunamied by bad candidates with millions? There is a way to change this, and it is something we can do right here in Kentucky: publicly funded elections.
It is becoming increasingly common around election time to bemoan the presence of money in politics, and since the Citizens United decision in 2010 allowed for unlimited spending on campaigns, more and more people are participating in this tradition. In the 2016 Presidential race, spending surpassed $1 billion all the way back in April. Now, even well-meaning candidates can be forced to seek large sums to take on the onslaught of money pouring into campaigns. Often, the only time outside money is not a concern in elections is when a candidate is wealthy enough to self-fund their own campaign.
We have known for some time that this is an issue at the federal level, with Senators and members of Congress forced to raise tens of thousands of dollars a week just to compete. But it is even becoming an issue at the state and local level, as large-scale outside spending is increasingly influencing local elections. This influx of outside money has had real effects on state and local elections, and may cause citizens to feel powerless to stop it. However, voters have one very potent option, and it is one that is already being used in cities and states across the country: publicly funded elections.
What are publicly funded elections?
Public funding of elections is when political campaigns are funded at least in part by the government, rather than just by private individuals or groups. Instead of raising the entire amount needed to run a campaign, candidates who chose to participate will generally agree to an overall spending limit and other criteria and receive a portion of the total cost from the government. These programs are funded in a variety of ways, and those running for office typically must collect a certain number of small donations to demonstrate they are a legitimate candidate. There are currently 13 states that provide some sort of public financing option for campaigns at the state level (Governor/Lt. Governor, State Legislature, or State Supreme Court), as well as several cities which provide funding for local office (mayor, council, etc.)
How does it work?
There are several ways that this has been put into practice. One is to provide matching funds up to a certain limit. For every dollar raised, the government will provide a predetermined amount. This is the model employed by New York City, which provides matching funds for participating candidates at a $6-to-$1 ratio for all contributions of $175 or less. This gives a huge boost to the value of a small donor’s contribution, as even a $5 donation would suddenly become worth $35. Not only do donors feel more empowered; candidates have a much greater incentive to focus on small donations.
Other programs provide full funding through a government grant (at a specified amount) for candidates who choose to participate – again, abiding by certain spending rules. The biggest examples of this style of funding are the so called “clean election” states of Maine and Arizona. In each state, candidates must collect a certain number of donations from small donors in order to qualify.
Some areas such as Minnesota make small donations eligible for a tax refund (up to $50 in the case of MN) and couples this with grants to fund up to half the cost of a campaign. The program even raises the spending limit for some first-time candidates to help them run effectively against incumbents. In 2014, 88.5% of eligible candidates participated in Minnesota’s program.
The most progressive plans, however, may come from Seattle at the city level, and South Dakota at the state level. One of the biggest takeaways from the 2016 Presidential election was the amount of money the Sanders campaign raised during the primary from small donors. Senator Sanders showed how much can be done with $27. However, $27 is still a lot of money for a lot of people. To help everyone have a say in political campaigns, Seattle voters approved a ballot measure in 2015 that would give each registered voter vouchers that they can donate to a local candidate of their choosing. As part of the plan, each voter will receive four vouchers worth $25 each. The vouchers will be sent out each local election cycle and can be assigned to candidates running for municipal office. The measure was supported by 60% of voters, and the program will be funded by a modest increase in property taxes.
In 2016, South Dakota adopted a similar measure. Voters in that state will receive two $50 vouchers to be given candidates who chose to participate in public funding. The money for this program comes from the state’s general fund and works out to around $9 a voter.
In adopting these reforms, Seattle and South Dakota have ensured that a lack of financial resources does not prevent anyone from participating in a campaign. Neither of these measures have taken effect yet, so it will be interesting to see how they play out in the coming years.
What are the benefits of publicly funded elections?
There are multiple benefits to elections being funded publicly, but the two biggest benefits are getting big money out of politics and getting good people into politics.
From a financial standpoint, these programs reduce the reliance on wealthier, unrepresentative donors and groups, forcing candidates and those already in office to interact with, and rely more, on their actual constituents. Candidates could spend less time fundraising and have more time to focus on legislation that serves the public interest.
Reducing the reliance on these donors also solves another issue. Even at the state and local level, candidates elected with help from private funds may be more likely to represent the needs of wealthy donors rather than residents as a whole. Donors with the sort of money to privately fund campaigns are disproportionately old, white, and male.
A report by the Brennan Center found that wealthy donors can have a particularly negative impact on groups traditionally discriminated against, making members of those groups feel as though they can’t compete and discouraging them from running for office in the first place. When this happens to women and minorities, those differing viewpoints are lost. This can severely limit the policy discussion on topics such as women’s health, mass incarceration, wage gaps, and policing. Public funding of campaigns can increase the number of women and minorities running for office, and candidates in states where public funding is available have reported that this process made it possible for them to run by removing financial barriers.
Answering the critics
[two_third_first]Of course, there are some who do not find this model of election finance appealing. The money must come from somewhere, and convincing everyone to raise their taxes slightly so some people can run for office is a tough sell for many. However, even if taxes do go up slightly, taxpayers could end up saving money in the long run. Politicians may be less likely to offer tax breaks or bailouts to companies, organizations, or special interest groups as they would no longer be beholden to them for funding. This would decrease the average person’s tax burden by making special interests and businesses pay their share without leaving the rest of us to foot the bill. And as mentioned earlier, 60% of Seattle residents voted for their model of public funding even though it would increase their property taxes. To get private money out of politics, they were willing to put public money into it.
Others may be concerned about the quality of candidates running. One of the supposed benefits of private funding is that candidates must be seen as viable or legitimate in order to receive donations. Public funding, critics argue, would allow anyone to run for office, regardless of their ability or qualifications. This argument falls flat fairly quickly, as there are plenty of terrible candidates who have run and gotten elected just fine using private funds. In addition, one study found that public funding does not encourage low quality candidates to run, but helps serious candidates who may not have been able to afford it otherwise and thus increases competitiveness. Giving more serious candidates the wherewithal to run can improve the overall quality of those elected.
And finally, there is the concern as to whether these candidates can even win. Candidates are not required to accept public funds, and those who don’t may not be constrained by any sort of spending limits. However, in Arizona, candidates accepting public money began winning a greater percentage of races each year following the program’s adoption. This shows that not only are these candidates competitive, but that in many cases voters may actually prefer candidates who are funded publicly to those funded more by special interests.
Current elected officials are just as eligible to use public funds as their challengers, and public funding does not necessarily mean incumbents will lose. It does, however, mean that more races can wind up being contested. In 2006, for example, every seat in Maine’s State House was contested.[/two_third_first][one_third_last][thrive_text_block color=”blue” headline=”Talking Points”]
- Reduces the influence of big money on elections and on governing.
- Frees up elected officials to spend less time raising money and more time serving the people.
- Forces candidates to pay more attention to small donors, i.e., everyday people.
- Reduces the oversized influence of the wealthy, who tend to be older and white, and thus increases the influence of a more diverse donor base.
- Encourages women and minorities to be more involved in the political process, as they feel that their voices have a greater chance of being heard.
- Actually improves the quality of candidates running, as more serious candidates have a chance to be competitive.
Kentucky, we can do this
Public funding of elections is not a new concept. It works and is popular in states and cities across the country with candidates and voters alike. A Gallup poll found that about half of Americans support the idea. It is supported by Jimmy Carter, who along with Ronald Reagan, used public funding to run for President in 1976.
Louisville and Kentucky should adopt a model of public funding. Special interests can permeate elections in our state just as easily as they have in states and cities across the country, often to the detriment of the public. In addition, there are many qualified candidates across the state that do not have the financial resources to mount a campaign. Imagine a scenario where not having access to fundraising networks was no longer a prohibitive barrier to running for office. The number of issues and topics that would be addressed by an increase in viewpoints would alter our state and local governments dramatically.
Public funding is not a panacea. It will not solve all of our political issues. It may not even change the results of elections. But it would make candidates less beholden to special interests, and would give people previously excluded from running for office the chance to do so. This is not just an attempt to “turn the rascals out,” but an attempt to make those rascals more focused on the people.
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