Amplifying Small-Dollar Donors in the Citizens United Era

Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program Shifted the Balance of Power to the People

Citizen-funded elections lead to healthier democracies and offer a guide to all citizens who believe that democracy is out of balance. Common Cause has been leading the nonpartisan charge for healthier democracy for 50 years, working at the national level and on the ground, state by state. We demand a democracy that works for all of us, but we can only do this together. Join us.


Politics costs money. Runaway campaign spending blocks better government policies because candidates turn to the wealthy and industry for support. The support comes with strings because big spenders are investing in policy outcomes.

Citizen-funded election programs step in to create space for policies that favor large swaths of everyday Americans. Particularly when combined with restrictions on lobbyist and government contractor contributions, these reforms represent the best way to prevent government capture by the wealthy.

Some claim that these programs are too fragile a “fix” in a system that allows the wealthy to spend massive sums. Others ask whether it really leads to “better” government, which can be hard to prove.

We talked to legislators, candidates, lobbyists, regulators, academics and Connecticut voters. In short, we found that the experiment in Connecticut is working, and the state has become a national model.

Ordinary citizens are more empowered to participate in democracy and better represented by those elected to office. Races are much more competitive, and the legislature is more representative of the state; local small donors matter.

The Citizens’ Election Program (CEP) has been embraced by candidates, and many claim that high participation by elected legislators has led to better policy outcomes.

One bill alone, the “bottle bill,” which passed a decade ago, led to both a better policy outcome and savings for the state that has more than paid for the entire program.

Citizen-funded elections may not be a panacea for all issues, but it is the best instrument we have to combat the problem of money in politics. All instruments need to be tuned over time. Amendments are needed so that reform programs continue to fulfill their ultimate goals.

We need to support the agency charged with administering this historic reform by giving it the resources it needs to deliver the full promise of small-dollar donor democracy. And we need to help everyday Americans better recognize the impact of these reforms on their daily lives.

The nation is watching.

We are facing extraordinary challenges, including foreign interference in our elections, a president impeached by the House of Representatives and an attack on foundational states’ rights by a president who claims “absolute authority” over our state leaders’ day-to-day actions to protect us in the face of a global health crisis.

This is a time to protect and lift up the inspiring model of Connecticut’s Citizen Election Program. It has set the standard for a state model of reform that inspires hope for change across a country ready for healthy democracy reform.

The future of our democracy may depend on it.

Director of Money in Politics and Ethics
Common Cause Education Fund

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