American Candidate

A Case for Full Public Finance Systems for Campaigns

If you asked random people on the street for their thoughts on American politics, you’d probably hear the same negative comments repeatedly: There’s too much money in campaigns, money plays too much of a role in whether or not people get elected, and elected officials are beholden to special interests, not the average citizen. Despite reams of laws and regulations at all levels of government designed to minimize corruption and conflicts of interest, these perceptions remains as strong as ever.

A handful of states and cities have tackled this problem head-on by enacting campaign finance systems that allow the use of public funds to help pay for the costs of running a campaign. These reforms do three things:

Allow challengers, who are almost always at a financial disadvantage, to run a viable campaign;

Ensure that elected officials will be beholden to the broader public, not just a few narrow special interest groups and individuals;

Allow all candidates to spend more time talking to voters about issues and less time to wealthy contributors.

Maine and Arizona have both enacted ambitious public finance systems by providing full public funding for statewide candidates, like governor, representatives and senators. The “Clean Elections” system gives candidates the option of having their campaigns almost entirely publicly funded as long as they abide by specific spending limits. Participants raise “seed money” in small donations in order to become eligible for the system.

Since those reforms were passed in 1998 in Maine and Arizona, more candidates have been involved in elections and there have been more competitive races for state offices in those states. In my home state of Maine, three quarters of the state Senate is made up of participating candidates. I was majority leader of the state Senate and saw how this system makes for better policymaking by reducing the influence of special interests. Public funding also gave my daughter the opportunity to run for the legislature and become one of the youngest candidates elected in the state.

In addition to Maine and Arizona, a number of other states, and some large cities like New York, have different forms of public financing that match small contributions with public funds, giving participating candidates a chance to be competitive against incumbents with large campaign war chests.

And despite strong opposition from special interests whose political leverage is threatened by public financing, 20 states have some form of full public financing pending in their legislatures.

Opponents of public financing, such as those attempting to overturn Arizona’s system by placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year, say the system costs too much and that the public funds should be spent elsewhere. But the cost of publicly financed campaigns is a small fraction of state budgets, and in fact may produce a more efficient and less costly government. Imagine state and local contracts open to competition, instead of given as a favor, in exchange for campaign donations.

There is no panacea, no single reform that will end the cynicism surrounding American politics. But with a full public finance system, a candidate doesn’t have to be rich or have a circle of wealthy friends to compete. And when publicly financed candidates win, you get policies that reflect the interests of the general public instead of special interests. Public financing is a reform that will help convince average Americans that elected officials really represent them, and that “we, the people” are in fact the government.