Is it time for public campaign financing?

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The thorny problems of campaign financing put candidates and voters in a tough spot. To have a chance, candidates — especially at state and national levels — need a big chunk of change to reach all voters with even their most basic messages.

To get that funding, they need contributions from those who can afford it. Yet accepting it from big business, industry groups, and the wealthy worries voters that the successful candidate will be beholden, or at least influenced, in the donors’ direction.

They say money corrupts. It’s also necessary, and if candidates limit themselves in the current system, they face being outspent by opponents, reducing odds of success.

Speaking to a packed crowd last week, constitutional expert David Adler suggested the answer is publicly financed campaigns.

President Roosevelt would agree. During his 1907 State of the Union Address, he said, “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” Roosevelt argued that public financing of elections would ensure no one donor influences the outcome more than another, and would “work a substantial improvement in our system of conducting a campaign.”

Yet there’s little of it (think of that $1 to the President’s re-election fund question on your federal return). Among numerous court decisions favoring private funding, in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court (Buckley v. Valeo) nixed a Federal Election Commission provision requiring public financing of presidential elections. States can’t require candidates to use them either, and the financial advantages of private fundraising (more money, fewer limits on donors and how it’s spent) frequently prompt candidates to opt out of state public financing programs, which often include campaign expenditure limits.

If everybody doesn’t go the same way, it can’t be fair to every candidate. We continue with status quo.

The two main public campaign financing options which some 14 states currently offer are “clean elections” programs (e.g., Maine and Arizona), and matching funds programs (e.g. Florida and Hawaii). The “clean election states” offer full funding for the campaign, and the matching funds programs provide partial funding.

In the clean elections programs, candidates collect enough small contributions (about $5 each) to prove public support sufficient to merit public funding. In return, the commission gives the candidate funds equal to the election’s expenditure limit (thousands or millions, depending on the office). Such programs may be funded by surcharges on various government-related penalties and fees.

The matching funds are generally just what they sound like. Candidates are encouraged to limit contributions and expenditures to an amount set by the legislature. Participating candidates get a percentage of that limit in public funds, after a minimum qualifying limit of donations during the primary. The public part is generally funded by tax return check-the-box contributions, which has been controversial.

Another approach is financing the parties, rather than the candidates directly. And what about independents? Minority or emerging parties? Some also fear that incumbents, who are already well-known, have too big an advantage if spending is limited.

There is no perfect answer. European nations with full or partial public campaign financing still experience illicit private donations and corruption controversies. Some argue public campaign financing mandates citizen funding of candidates they wouldn’t favor. Others say that’s worth putting limits on what’s gotten out of control, so only the rich, or the richly supported (the top few national election donors grossly outweigh all smaller donors combined), can effectively run for any major office — that public financing can help level the playing field.

Both sides have a point. The question is, which cost can we bear in this environment of increasing voter apathy?

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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