Citizen Funded Elections Overview

Citizen Funded Elections are a practical, proven reform that puts voters in control of democracy, instead of big political donors. Rather than being forced to rely on special interest donors to pay for their campaigns, candidates have the opportunity to raise small donations from their grassroots base to qualify for public funding, which ends their reliance on special interest campaign cash, replacing their extended influence in government with the broader citizenry's.

Being freed from the money chase means candidates and officials have more time to spend with constituents, talking about the issues that matter to them. When they enter office, they can consider legislation on the merits, without worrying about whether they are pleasing well heeled donors and lobbyists. Citizen Funded Elections would return our government to one that is of, by, and for the people—not bought and paid for by special interests.

How do Citizen Funded Elections work?

There are several types of Citizen Funded Elections, but all share the common goal of offsetting the big money flood in elections with small-donor contributions. Some plans offer tax refunds and/or deductions to individuals who make small political contributions. Others offer public funding through block grants to candidates who agree to accept only small contributions. All of these proposals would be a huge improvement on our current system of special interest funded elections, where only a tiny percentage of the population is involved. Increasing the number of small donors in politics would allow candidates to run and win without big money interests, increasing their responsivness to average citizen concerns and facilating a more popular government. This should then in turn get more voters re-engaged and further fuel a dynamic democracy. In Arizona, for example, where these elections were implemented in 2000, voter turnout increased 20% between the 1996 and 2004 presidential elections.

Are there states where Citizen Funded Elections works?

States including Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and North Carolina use citizen-funded election systems for at least some of their elections with great success. A 2013 report by Demos on Connecticut’s public financing system found that:

  • Public financing allows legislators to spend more time interacting with constituents.
  • Public financing increases the number of donors. Lobbyists influence begins to decline with public financing.
  • More people are able to run for office because of public financing.
  • Public financing helps a more diverse set of candidates get elected.
  • Public financing allows for a more substantive legislative process.
  • Policies adopted after public financing was implemented are more aligned with the public’s preferences and the needs of the people of Connecticut.

Didn’t Massachusetts used to have a Citizen Funded Elections system?

In November 1998, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly (67%) passed a "clean elections" public financing law that provided the option of full public financing for the campaigns of qualified candidates for statewide offices as well as the state Senate and House of Representatives. Ballot initiatives in the state cannot include funding for any program, however, and the legislature refused to fund the system. Then in 2002, opponents of the reform, notably former House Speaker Tom Finneran, placed a deceptively worded advisory referendum on the ballot asking voters if they supported "tax payer funded political campaigns." They then raised over $700,000 from corporations to promote it. Nearly 75% of Massachusetts voters voted against the advisory question, only 4 years after overwhelming supporting Clean Elections at the ballot box.

On the heels of the advisory question vote, the legislature repealed our Clean Elections law in 2003, despite hundreds of calls and emails from Common Cause Massachusetts supporters. The repeal effort was slipped into the Senate’s budget proposal as an amendment and gaveled through on a voice vote so that senators would not have to publicly state their positions. The repeal was left in the budget bill by the Conference Committee and signed by then-Gov. Romney.

In its place is a much weaker, partial public financing law for six statewide offices; it provides matching funds for contributions of up to $250 to qualified candidates who agree to specific limited expenditures for their campaigns.

Wouldn't Citizen Funded Elections be too expensive?

No! Public financing will likely result in a net savings of money by reducing the waste that results from inappropriate giveaways to big campaign contributors. It can also reduce waste by allowing elected officials to focus more on running government rather than raising money. Such a program will only cost about $4 per voting-age citizen per year. That’s approximately 1/25 of 1% of the Federal budget, a sum that will likely be saved many times over through cleaner and more efficient government.

For example, congressional “pork barrel project” earmarks have averaged over $20 billion per year in recent years. Approximately $70 billion to $100 billion in tax revenue is lost each year through the use of offshore tax schemes and loopholes that could also be closed by Congress. Both of those could be stopped by a government that wasn't beholden to the special interests that use the loopholes and demand "pork." One bill for a Citizen Funded Election system is estimated at $1 billion per year, a fraction of those totals and a bargain for more accountable, responsible government.

So what's the plan now?

In Massachusetts, Sen. Eldridge has introduced a bill to create a robust system of public financing for statewide offices and the legislature of our Commonwealth. More information on SD 1257 coming soon.

In Congress, the Government by the People Act in the House and the Fair Elections Now Act in the Senate propose creating an innovative, small-donor matching system with public funds to create more Citizen Funded Elections. Read more

More benefits of Citizen Funded Elections

  • Full public financing makes elections fair by leveling the playing field, so elections are decided on the merits of the candidates and their ideas, not their fundraising abilities. In 2006, nearly 94 percent of the candidates for U.S. Congress who spent the most money also won their races.
  • By ensuring that all qualified candidates are able to raise enough money to communicate their views and positions adequately to the public, Citizen Funded Elections level the playing field, ensuring that winning is more about ideas and voters than fundraising networks and big donors.
  • Full public financing significantly reduces the amount of time that candidates need to spend raising money, so they can spend more time on addressing national priorities – and hopefully maintaining a healthy, sane lifestyle, too. Members of the House and Senate spend an inordinate amount of time raising money, with the average Senator needing to raise more than $25,000 every week for their entire six-year term in order to be competitive for their next race. Former Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) estimated that almost one-third of a senator’s time is spent on fundraising. Hollings contrasted today’s Senate with the institution of the 1960s, which typically worked full weeks: “Now you can’t find the Senate until Monday evening, and it’s gone again by Thursday night. We’re off raising money.”
  • Full public financing ensures that average citizens have a fair opportunity to participate in every step of the democratic process. In most congressional races, the first competition is the “money primary” – how much early cash can a candidate raise in order to prove to the public that he or she is a serious contender. This gives extraordinary power to those wealthy donors who can afford to give a candidate enough early money, usually at least $200,000, to show that the candidate is a viable contender – or not. So it’s no surprise that average citizens feel like they have little access to elected officials and no chance of running for office themselves. In contrast, Citizen Funded Elections put the power in the hands of regular voters from the beginning, and candidates can run a competitive race even if they don’t have access to wealthy friends or family.
  • Full public financing can also help bring disengaged citizens back into the political process. Citizen participation in our elections has been diminishing in recent decades, with cynicism and apathy on the rise instead. This is due both to voter disenchantment with perceived corruption in the political process and also by a lack of competition in the electoral arena. Full public financing, by reducing the perception of pay-to-play politics and by increasing competition, can reengage the citizenry in the democratic process.

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