New Brennan Center report:
To begin to address these deep-rooted problems, lawmakers across the country are turning to the most powerful campaign finance reform available since the Supreme Court tipped the scales toward megadonors in Citizens United. Public campaign financing offers candidates the choice to drop out of the big money chase and run competitive campaigns focused on contact with constituents rather than call lists of big donors and special interests.
Over the last 10 years, more than a dozen jurisdictions have either adopted new public financing systems or strengthened existing ones, adding to a list of programs that have been operating for decades. These systems are available in state or local elections across the country, from small towns to states and large cities. In 2020, New York became the first state to enact a statewide public financing program since Citizens United. And most prominently, the House of Representatives has passed a congressional public financing program twice as part of the For the People Act.
Public financing of elections can take on various forms. Small-donor matching systems offer candidates public funds that multiply the value of small contributions. For example, under the program in Montgomery County, Maryland, which matches the smallest donations for county council and executive races at a 4:1 rate, a contribution of $10 becomes worth $50 to the candidate. Another type of program, often called clean elections, offers candidates block grants of public money once they qualify and prohibits them from raising additional private funds. Finally, voucher systems provide constituents with vouchers worth a specified dollar amount to give to the candidates of their choice, who then receive public funds in that amount.
Thousands of candidates — incumbents and newcomers; Democrats, Republicans, and independents — have used these systems to run for office, empowering untold numbers of small donors. With a combined five decades of implementation, just two of the largest jurisdictions, Arizona and New York City, have publicly financed almost 2,000 candidacies. Many officials — both legislative and executive — whose elections were publicly financed represent one million constituents or more. The stories of these publicly financed candidates paint a picture of a reform that makes for a healthier democracy.
In 2016, the Brennan Center published Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Financing, featuring firsthand testimony from a bipartisan set of elected officials from across the country. Now, for this report, we interviewed a new set of elected officials, from both parties, with experience running on public financing, many from newly implemented programs such as those in Seattle, Washington; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Washington, DC.
As the number of public financing systems has grown, so have the ranks of candidates and elected officials who can attest to their impact. This report features reflections from individual candidates, but they speak to common benefits of the reform.