Case For and Against Public Financing of Elections

Prepared by Christine Bachrach, IndivisibleHoCoMD

April 14, 2019

Arguments in Support of Public Financing

Mechanisms to magnify the power of everyday Americans in influencing elections are essential to keep politics honest and clear-sighted.  Citizens United and other Federal court decisions have increased the real and perceived risk of corruption because they have greatly amplified the ability of wealthy individuals, PACs, and corporations to overwhelm the campaign contributions of smaller donors. Politicians are better able to represent all their constituents when they are not beholden to special interests.  Once elected, publicly financed candidates are accountable to the many individual donors who have supported them, rather than a wealthy few.

Public financing is good for candidates. The expense of running for office can discourage talented and promising candidates from entering public life if they lack personal resources or the support of large donors. By reducing financial barriers, public financing helps to encourage all qualified candidates to compete.

Public financing encourages candidates to draw more voters into the political process.  Candidates must conduct a substantial amount of direct voter outreach early in the campaign cycle to qualify for the programs. Once qualified, public financing can help to free candidates from the rigors of fundraising and can instead focus on winning over voters through canvassing and other outreach efforts. For the small donor, becoming involved through making a contribution increases the likelihood of other types of involvement (volunteering for campaigns, canvassing voters, and passing out campaign literature).

By engaging a larger number of small donors, public programs also diversify the donor pool and make it more representative of the larger community, according to studies in New York and Seattle.

Public financing diversifies the candidate pool and increases the overall competitiveness of elections.   Studies in Maine and Connecticut have found that the introduction of public programs increased the number of candidates, reduced the number of unopposed races, narrowed margins of victories, and reduced incumbent re-election rates.

Arguments Against Public Financing:

Public financing forces taxpayers to underwrite candidates whose views they do not support.  People should not be compelled to pay for the speech of others.

Public financing programs have little effect on the influence of large donors and the advantages of incumbents.  Private contributions continue to dominate campaigns. For example, despite success of the New York City program, its effects were swamped by a spending surge by independent committees who could invest unlimited amounts to influence the election.  While races tend to be more competitive, officeholders still win reelection as much as ever.  

There are better uses for the funds needed to support the programs. Cost estimates have included $5M In DC and $2.5M in Montgomery County.  Taxpayer money should be spent on education and other public services, not politicians.

Because of bureaucratic delays, the money sometimes reaches candidates too late to make a difference in the election.

Only candidates who already have strong organizational backing can take full advantage of the program because of the high demands of collecting qualifying signatures or small dollar contributions.

Further reading:

https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/stock/2018_10_MiPToolkit_PublicFinancingLaw.pdf

https://campaignlegal.org/sites/default/files/Public%20Financing%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/evidence-suggests-that-switching-to-publicly-funded-elections-is-rarely-a-game-changer/2014/09/25/aaabb55a-4267-11e4-b437-1a7368204804_story.html?utm_term=.cff9efcadad0