“Small Donor Empowerment Depends on the Details”

Release:

The Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) is pleased to announce that the new issue of The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics (peer-reviewed) includes a major article by Michael J. Malbin and Michael Parrott, “Small Donor Empowerment Depends on the Details: Comparing Matching Funds in New York and Los Angeles.” The Forum has made the article freely available for download, here. It substantially enlarges and revises the working papers previously made available by CFI.

ABOUT THE ARTICLE:

Political campaigns have long been financed by people with well above average incomes, but the balance has tilted dramatically in recent years. A number of jurisdictions have sought to rebalance the incentives through new (or updated) public financing programs. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the programs’ effects has been sweepingly generic. The programs do differ from each other and we have good reason to expect that “success” or “failure” will depend both on their goals and the programs’ details. This article focuses on why New York’s program is more effective than Los Angeles’ for city council races, and why both are less successful in mayoral than city council races.

We asked these research questions for reasons explained in the article’s closing sentences:

Pluralism has many virtues, but it is essentially a system for promoting deliberation and compromise among those who already have resources to bring to the political bargaining table. . . . Tools designed to bring more small donors into the system are meant to enlarge the table – to help give more people, and different kinds of people, a meaningful voice. . . . This concern goes to the heart of successful democratic representation. It should not be dismissed lightly. We owe it to those who try to address the concern to see whether and how their efforts bear fruit.

The article focuses on one type of program that has become a model in recent years. Until recently New York City was the only jurisdiction with a multiple matching system explicitly designed to increase the role of small donors. Previous studies noted the apparent successes of matching funds in New York City, which offer $6 in matching funds for each of the first $175 that a donor contributes to a participating candidate. These studies have included “Small Donors, Big Democracy” (by CFI authors) in the Election Law Journal and “Donor Diversity through Matching Funds” published jointly by CFI and the Brennan Center.

However, it has been difficult to feel entirely comfortable with these conclusions when there was only one jurisdiction to test. After Los Angeles revised its system in 2013, serious comparisons became possible that made it possible to sort out the effects of the two cities’ programs from the effects of their larger environments.

This new look at the evidence has found that New York City’s program increased the number, proportional role, and diversity of small donors in city council elections but that the Los Angeles program was substantially less effective. The article distinguished program effects from the broader context by using a methodology that compared the donors to city council candidates over time against donors to state legislative candidates who sought to represent the same geographical space. A series of explanations were tested, leading us to conclude that the policy details were affecting the results. The policies had less of an impact on mayoral than city council candidates in both cities. This suggests that the programs might have to be adapted if applied to larger constituencies, such as for Governor or the U.S. Congress.

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