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Why Public Funding Works
The money it takes to field an electoral campaign has ballooned. For congressional elections, the amount of money a candidate collects too often determines the outcome. And when it comes to elections, money talks.
Key facts on money in politics:
- In 2002, over 90 percent of the winners outspent the losers, with 299 of the winning candidates outspending their opponents by a factor of 10 to 1.(1)
- The Cook Political Report rates just 35 of this fall’s House races as competitive. Others think even that estimate is too high.(2)
- In 2002, not a single California incumbent lost re-election.(3)
- Skyrocketing campaign costs favor incumbents, who accepted 83 percent of contributions from business groups in 2004.(4)
The public knows the score. A May 2006 Associate Press poll found that public confidence in Congress was at 25 percent – lower than it has ever been since the science of polling began in the 1950s.(5)
How public funding levels the playing field
How it works: Candidates collect an established number of small contributions, such as $5.00, from supporters. For Congressional candidates, the number of contributions needed would be substantial.
These donations qualify them for public campaign funds, if they agree to accept no additional private money and abide by strict spending limits. When candidates face privately funded opponents who outspend them or independent expenditures on behalf of their opposition, they can qualify for additional funding up to a limit.
Public funding increases voter turnout. In Arizona, voter turnout increased by 20 percent after that state enacted a clean money reform for state candidates.
A public funding system for elections is cost-effective. Congressional candidates spent about $1.3 billion in the last two-year election cycle a miniscule amount when compared to the $2.3 trillion federal budget.(6) If this cost were divided among all 215 million adults in the United States, it would equal the price of a gourmet cup of coffee – a mere $3 per year per eligible voter. These costs pale in comparison to the government’s estimate of $47.4 billion each year that Congress hands out through direct earmarks to wealthy donors, special interests and big business, costing each citizen of voting age $220 a year.(7)
Public funding is fair. Both Republicans and Democrats are successfully using the system in several states. Arizona’s incumbent Governor Janet Napolitano is now running her second campaign using the Clean Elections program. In Maine, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Chandler Woodcock, opted into that state’s Clean Elections system. The state legislature in Connecticut passed a Clean Elections bill in December 2005. Arizona and Maine have used statewide and legislative clean elections since 2000, and North Carolina started public funding for judicial races in 2004. Many lawmakers say the system frees them to vote their conscience without having to worry about their next campaign dollar.
Public funding for elections is a practical, proven solution that puts voters in control of elections. It is also the focus of growing public and congressional attention. In Congress, Reps. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) are leading sponsors of H.R. 3099, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act, which would provide full public funding for House candidates. A similar bill is expected for introduction in the Senate soon.
(1) The Green Party of the United States, "Greens Declare Corporate Money the Big Winner in 2002 Elections," February 5, 2003.
(2) Gilgoff, Dan, “A Fake Democracy?” U.S. News & World Report, May 15, 2006.
(3) Gilgoff, Dan, “A Fake Democracy?” U.S. News & World Report, May 15, 2006.
(4) Gilgoff, Dan, “A Fake Democracy?” U.S. News & World Report, May 15, 2006.
(5) Margasak, Larry, "Congress Faces Multiple Criminal Probes," Associated Press, May 21, 2006.
(6) David Magleby, Anthony Corrado, and Kelly Patterson, eds. Financing the 2004 Election, Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2006), p. 75.
(7) Congressional Research Service Memorandum. Earmarks in Appropriations Acts: FY1994, FY1996,FY1998, FY2000, FY2002, FY2004, FY2005, January 26, 2006.