Our Path Forward: Getting (Big) Money Out of Politics

Wisconsin should, for all state and local elections here, provide a generous public match of funding for candidates showing a requisite number of small-dollar contributions, and/or an equal value of citizen cash vouchers, allocated equally to all, redeemable for political activity. 

What’s the Problem Addressed?
Democracy means self-rule with equal respect and say. In elections for public office, candidate competition should be for all voters, considered equally. But elections in the US are not like that at all. They first require candidates first to win a “wealth primary” – to show their own deep pockets or attractiveness to those who have them – before most voters even get to see them. Only a tiny share of the population decides this primary, effectively making American an oligarchy not a democracy. 

How OWR Proposal Addresses It
Public funding of election campaigns, generous enough to provide all candidates with basic material competitiveness, would end the wealth primary. We favor either or both of two ways to do this. One is to provide a public match several times what candidates collect in small-donor contributions below a certain contribution cap; this has the attraction of forcing candidates to work for early support. Another is to issue an equivalent value of vouchers, equally divided among citizens, redeemable for political activity. This reduces without eliminating the burden on candidate and further equalizes citizen say. 

Neither of the proposed clean money designs will prevent a rich candidate from trying to buy an election, though their available will show up such ambition for what it is: an insult to fellow citizens. And neither will cure all the ills of our democracy. But from all states and cities that have chosen the clean money route, we know its effects: a greater diversity of candidates, freer and more robust political debate, greater citizen confidence in the election process, and more citizen participation. That’s not heaven, but it’s better than the hell we have now. 

Who Else Is Doing This?
Today, 13 states provide some form of public financing option for campaigns. Generally (but not always), as a condition of receiving the money, candidates are required to limit their spending, as well as limiting their private donations to those within the small donation limit.[note] National Conference of State Legislatures, State Public Financing Options 2015-2016.[/note] Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine have all established clean elections programs which encourage candidates to collect a large number of small contributions to demonstrate public support. In return, candidates receive a sum of money equal to the expenditure limit set for the election.[note] National Conference of State Legislatures, Overview of State Laws on Political Funding.[/note] A study of the impact of the program in Arizona and Maine found that they significantly increased competition in districts where challengers accepted public funding. [note] Malhotra, N. (2008). The impact of public financing on electoral competition: evidence from Arizona and Maine. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 8(3), 263-281. [/note]

Cities are also getting into the mix. New York City’s public match program is a model, now imitated by other cities. Candidates who opt into it agree to limit any individual contributions to $176 or less; the city that matches, on a 6-to-1 basis, the money they raise. There are, of course, variations and bells and whistles of different sorts in these different laws. Some jurisdictions, for example, add tax credits for those who wish to make a small contribution but don’t have ready cash even for that. Seattle is trying the cash voucher route. 

In designing such a system, of course, a key question needing an answer is what the limit on public funding should be. Our view is that we cannot know that limit in advance, simply that it should be enough, under local circumstances, to make any candidate with public support competitive.  Call this the “competitiveness” tests of any proposed public funding program design. It must be pass for any design to be viable and enduring. If not, experience shows, even candidates who accept the idea of publicly-financed elections will turn the money away if accepting it puts them at a fatal disadvantage. This effectively is what has happened with the Presidential public funding system, which no serious candidate has participated in more than a decade. 

Of course, guaranteeing money competitiveness costs money. But unless we’re happy to sell off our democracy, it’s worth it. And some perspective on the costs may help. All told, in 2016, for all the elections held that year, including all the “independent” spending as well as direct contributions, we spent about $10 billion. That’s a staggering sum, orders of magnitude greater than in other democracies, and could be easily reduced if we wanted to with no restriction on lively debate. For starters, we might deeply cut what is typically the greatest campaign expense – buying time for ads on for-profit media – by strengthening non-profits like NPR or PBS, or reinstating public interest programming as a requirement of license renewal of for-profit ones. But even without such media reform, or any other change, $10 billion should really not impress. We’re now a $20 trillion economy, of which we spend about a quarter, or $5 trillion, on government at all levels. Isn’t it worth .2% of your tax dollar ($10B/$5T) to have some confidence that your government has been chosen democratically? 

Why Not Wisconsin?
Forty years ago, Wisconsin was an early leader in public funding of elections where candidates agreed to spending limits, financed by a voluntary check-off on resident tax filings.[note] Malbin, M. J., Brusoe, P. W., & Glavin, B. (2011). Public Financing of Elections after Citizens United and Arizona Free Republic.[/note] But the program never had enough popular or legislative support to adjust to the explosion in private spending on campaigns – it failed the “competitiveness test” just suggested — and it fell into disuse. One of the Walker administration’s early acts was to abolish it altogether.[note] Lueders, B. (June 30, 2011). Campaign financing dead in Wisconsin.[/note] With a new legislature, however, it would not be hard at all to replicate the Maine or other national models at the state level, and the NYC or Seattle ones for local races.