How Public Campaign Finance Empowers Small Donors Nationwide
Public campaign finance is a reform in progress. Recognizing that this is the most powerful response to the big money explosion of the past decade in politics, state and local governments have embraced new programs that will soon fuel grassroots campaigns.
In New York State, candidates for legislative and statewide office will begin enrolling in the new Small Donor Matching Program as early as November. State lawmakers and Governor Kathy Hochul set the program up for success earlier this week with a $20.5 million investment in the state budget for program administration and future funds. counterpart, a step towards securing a more equitable democracy in the state. The city of Baltimore and multiple Maryland counties will also be implementing their new programs soon.
These developments are in addition to other 14 states and 19 municipalities that have adopted public financing systems. Lawmakers and advocates are also pushing to bring new or strengthened programs to their communities, as in Oregon, Arizonaand Maryland.
Public funding is a proven policy that comes in many forms, all of which help candidates run campaigns focused on the people they represent. In small-donor matching systems like New York State’s, participating applicants receive matching public funds for each small eligible contribution they raise. For example, with a matching ratio of six to one, a contribution of $10 would get a public match of $60, making the initial donation worth $70 to the candidate. Other programs offer eligible applicants block grants or provide residents with vouchers that allow them to award public funds to participating applicants.
Faced with increasing expenses after the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in United Citizens has opened the floodgates to unlimited and often secret campaign spending, public funding is the best constitutionally authorized way to combat the influence of big money. The reform has increased the value of small contributions from everyday donors, allowing candidates to spend their time raising funds from more of the people they seek to represent, as opposed to wealthy mega-donors.
Candidates have waged state-funded campaigns for decades in states like Connecticut, Arizonaand Maineas well as major cities, including New York, San Franciscoand Los Angeles. These long-term programs show reform adaptability over time as they maintain their benefits for applicants and small donors.
Here’s a look at how this reform empowered ordinary Americans in recent elections.
Support candidates to win without big money
Public funding programs help participating candidates run for office and win, even in the face of big spending by corporations and special interests. In 2020, Washington, DC held its first City Council and Board of Education elections with its Fair Elections Program. Applicants who opted into the program tended to raise and spend — and enjoy more electoral Hit – than their privately funded counterparts, even without accepting large campaign contributions from wealthy donors, corporations or PACs.
Programs in New York and Portland, Oregon, have also paved the way for candidates to success without wealthy donors. In Portland’s first publicly funded election, candidates raised a much higher percentage of their funds from individuals rather than special interest groups, and two-thirds of competitive applicants opted for the public funding program.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James, who ran in the New York City program before taking office in the state, told the Brennan Center: ‘I wouldn’t be there where I am today without public funding. I come from a working family, but not a wealthy one. When I first showed up, I didn’t know the millionaires, and I didn’t know the deep-pocketed ones.
Increase the participation of small donors and voters
The programs encourage new, more diverse donors to give, stimulating the civic engagement our democracy needs to thrive. In 2018, during the first cycle of the matching program in Berkeley, California, the average amount of the contribution decreased by 60 percent of the previous election. The turnout campaigns also saw greater donor turnout across the city, not just in the wealthier, whiter ZIP codes. Likewise, since its debut in 2017, the Seattle voucher program has upset the status quobringing more young people, people of color and workers into the political process.
Most recently, in the first election under the program in Washington, D.C., state-funded candidates received more than twice as many individual contributions on average as non-participating candidates in 2020. Fair election candidates also received much lower contributions on average and engaged more new donors and neighborhood residents than their privately funded counterparts. The zip code with the most contributions has one of the lowest median incomes in the district and encompasses some of its the most diverse neighborhoods.
Portland has seen similar benefits. Participating mayoral candidates received, on average, nine times more individual contributions than their non-participating counterparts. State-funded applicants also received an average contribution of $81, 15 times smaller than the average contribution in 2016. A majority small donors had never given to a candidate for municipal office before. Contributors were also more evenly distributed across the city, reducing the disparity between low-income neighborhoods and wealthier areas of the city.
Break down barriers to entry
Public funding programs open doors for applicants who are women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and working people. As Arizona State Senator Victoria Steele said, “As a Native American woman — I’m Seneca and Mingo — public funding has given me an edge. It’s really hard for anyone to raise money to run for office, but women are generally more at a disadvantage when it comes to raising money for races. Public funding, while insufficient on its own, helps to counter this systemic discrimination.
When Washington, DC introduced public funding, the total number of women candidates for city council and school board rose from 12 to 16, while the total number of candidates of color rose from 14 to 38. Half of individuals elected on the board in 2020 were state-funded nominees, all of whom were people of color. Voters also elected a predominantly female advice for the first time in decades.
The last New York City Council elections saw similar trends. Women and people of color who won seats or participated in the primaries raised as much, on average, as their white and male counterparts and relied to similar degrees on small donations and matching public funds. Women increased their representation on city council from 27% to 61%. People of color, who make up 68% of the city’s residents, increased their representation from 51% to 67%. Women of color more than doubled their seats on the council.
Better representation goes hand in hand with greater responsiveness to voters’ needs. State-funded candidates report that their campaign conversations with their constituents inform the bills they introduce once elected. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams shared that with a match, elected officials can raise money while they “talk to people who donate $5 and $10 – and that’s all they can afford.”
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Enacting and improving more programs will only add to the body of research demonstrating the benefits of public funding for candidates and voters. For now, politics is one of the best tools we have to fight big money in politics and amplify the voice of ordinary Americans.