In Detail: The Fair Elections Now Act
With the corrupting role of big money in politics on display in recent Congressional scandals — Delay, Abramoff, Jefferson, and others — and as the cost of campaigns skyrockets, it's clear that we need a system to allow candidates and lawmakers to do the will of the voters, not to further cozy up to wealthy donors and special interests. The Fair Elections Now Act will create that with an opt-in full public financing system for Senate campaigns.
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The bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act (S.1285), authored by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), would create a full voluntary system of public funding for Senate candidates. Such systems are often referred to as "fair elections," or "clean elections." Candidates able to show a threshold level of public support by collecting $5 qualifying contributions from a set number of voters in their state, and swear off further private contributions, can qualify for public funding to run a competitive campaign.
The result is that candidates spend time on the campaign trail talking to voters and addressing policy questions, rather than focusing almost exclusively on collecting large contributions. And once in office, lawmakers would no longer be indebted to wealthy donors who financed their campaigns.
A publicly-funded candidate under the Fair Elections system goes through three basic steps: raise seed money, collect qualifying contributions to reach the required threshold, and then — once qualified — receive public funding to run a campaign. Candidates who participate in the program agree not to raise any private money other than a small amount of seed and qualifying contributions. During the campaign, a publicly funded candidate would be eligible to receive additional matching funds if his or her opponent was outspending him with a privately financed campaign.
Here's a closer look at the three steps for a candidate who opts for public funding.
- STAGE ONE: Seed Money
Before declaring an intent to run as a "Fair Elections," or publicly funded candidate, a candidate could solicit, accept, and spend seed money contributions of up to $100 from individual contributors (but not from PACs or other special interests) living in any state. Candidates could spend seed money for any election campaign-related expense, and any excess spending in Stage One would be deducted from the candidate's Fair Elections allocation.
House: Seed money expenditures would be limited to $75,000.
Senate: Seed money expenditures would be limited to a starting cap of $75,000, for a state with one congressional district. For each additional district in the state, the cap increases by $7500.
- STAGE TWO: Qualifying Contributions
To demonstrate viability as a publicly financed candidate, a major party candidate would be required to gather a specified minimum number of qualifying contributions of exactly $5 each. To protect the Fair Elections Fund from fly-by-night candidates lured by visions of free funding, independent and minor party candidates would have to raise 150% of the number of qualifying contributions that a major party candidate would be required to raise in the same election. Qualifying contributions must be collected from residents in the candidate's home state.
House: Candidates would be required to raise 1,500 qualifying contributions.
Senate: The number of qualifying contributions required for any particular state would be equal to 2,000 plus a formula of 500 times the number of congressional districts in the state minus one.
- STAGE THREE: Allocation of Funds to Qualified Candidates
Candidates for House and Senate would receive an initial lump sum grant, according the formula below. The funds available for the primary would be equal to 67 percent of the general election allocation. Participants facing privately funded opponents or heavy independent expenditures would be eligible for additional dollar-for-dollar "fair fight funds" up to 200 percent above the base general election allocation. For instance, if a candidate received $1 million for the general election, he or she could receive an additional $2 million if his or her opponent spent that much in private funds.
House: The amount of initial funding that a candidate would be eligible to receive for the general election is based on the following formula: 80% of the national average spending by the winning candidates during the last two election cycles. Publicly funded candidates would also receive one media voucher worth $100,000 towards the purchase of broadcast time.
Senate: Qualified candidates would receive general election funding in the amount of $750,000 plus a formula that is $150,000 times the number of congressional districts in a state, minus one. Publicly funded candidates would also receive one media voucher for every Congressional district in their state, with each voucher worth $100,000 towards the purchase of broadcast time.
For a state-by-state breakdown of the allocations for qualifying Fair Elections Senate candidates, click here.
Who makes the most money off of the skyrocketing cost of campaigns these days? It's not the candidates and it's not even their consultants. In fact, it's the broadcasting industry that pockets 52 cents out of every dollar — more than half of the money! — spent on the average Senate campaign.*
Broadcasters use the public airwaves for free, and are bound to provide the public service of covering campaigns and elections thoroughly — an obligation that they do not always fulfill. Meanwhile, broadcasters in the top ten media markets have profit margins of nearly 50%.
So funding for the broadcast media vouchers would come from a small spectrum use fee on commercial broadcasters. The fee of up to 2% of gross annual revenues represents a small fraction of broadcasters' outsized profits. The public funding grants under the Fair Elections Now Act would be paid for by a 10% fee on the upcoming auction of the public spectrum.
* Data from Campaign Study group, 2000 cycle
- Click here to download the text for the House version of the Fair Elections Now Act
- Click here to download the legislative analysis of the House version
For more: Read our full coalition report, Breaking Free for Fair Elections.