As an alternative to raising large sums of campaign cash to fund increasingly expensive campaigns, states can create a publicly-funded clean elections system for candidates who choose to forgo private donations. Strong arguments are available to progressives pursuing this reform. Publicly-funded elections free elected officials from the constant need to fundraise, and allow them to focus on public service, while reducing the ability of private donors to buy influence with officeholders. Public financing also encourages new people without independent wealth to pursue elected office, increases competition by reducing the disparity in spending between candidates, and reduces the cost of campaigns as candidates accept voluntary spending limits.
There are variations on public financing of elections, but the most comprehensive models adhere to the following principles:
Require that a candidate collects a certain number of $5 or $10 contributions, termed “qualifying contributions,” which establish the seriousness of her candidacy. The number of contributions depends on the office sought, but is generally in the hundreds. Contributions are limited to individuals registered to vote in the district.
Qualifying candidates then receive a set amount of public financing in the form of a grant with the condition that the candidate accepts no additional outside campaign contributions and spends no money outside of public funds.
Candidates outspent by privately financed opponents are usually entitled to additional, “fair fight” funds to maintain their competitiveness in the election. Fair fight funds are also available when independent third parties spend on an opponent’s behalf.
Currently Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico, and North Carolina have full public financing for some state-level elected offices. In these states both candidates and voters have overwhelmingly supported the reform.
- In 2006 in Arizona, 9 of 11 statewide offices were held by clean election participants, and 59% of the 164 candidates who were eligible ran clean election campaigns. This year, 64% of candidates are participating in public financing. In Connecticut, officials estimate that 78% of state legislative candidates will participate in public financing in 2008.
- In 2006, a national poll found that 74% of likely voters support public funding for campaigns. 80% of Democrats, 78% of Independents, and 65% of Republicans support this reform.
- In 2004 in Connecticut, 75% of residents supported a publicly-financed campaign fund for statewide candidates. In that same poll, 76% of people felt that private campaign spending fosters favoritism toward contributors.