Campaign finance reform, a major issue in the political dialogue throughout the primaries (owing in large part to Bernie Sanders’ populist campaign), has not been breached much by either candidate in the general election. While both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spoken out in support of reform, neither has made it a keystone of their campaign.
Well, I think you need it, because I think PACs are a horrible thing. - Donald Trump, when asked if he’d pursue campaign finance reform
There is no question we need to make Washington work much better than it does today. And that means, in particular, getting unaccountable money out of our politics. - Hillary Clinton
It’s hardly a divisive issue: polls show more than three-quarters of Americans support reform in campaign financing, independent of party affiliation or political bend.
However, big money donors have largely funded campaigns for so long now, many voters find it hard to imagine what campaign financing might look like without massive contributions from our nation’s wealthiest class. How else would politicians amass the monetary war chests needed to stage a successful bid for office?
Here we’ll investigate five different approaches to campaign financing that have been proposed by numerous individuals and organizations seeking to enact reform.
Voting With Dollars
Back in 2004, two law professors – Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers – coauthored a book titled: Voting with Dollars. Within, they describe a campaign finance system that attempts to democratize the system by giving every citizen a modest monetary budget to donate to the candidate(s) of their choosing.
It isn’t enough to count every vote equally on election day; Americans should also be given a more equal say in funding decisions. Just as citizens receive a ballot, so they should receive a special credit card – a Patriot Card – to finance their favorite candidates. - Bruce Ackerman, co-author of Voting with Dollars
At $50 per citizen, this proposal would put more than $5 billion in the hands of average voters, “overwhelming the $3 billion provided by private donors [in 2004],” according to Ackerman.
The authors of Voting with Dollars detail a number of other benefits of their proposed reform. Two in particular:
First, voters may choose to support a third-party candidate with their dollars, helping to finance and grow the smaller parties, while still voting for a candidate whose chances of winning the election is more realistic. Ackerman uses the 2004 election to exemplify his point:
Nader had a chance of garnering the 5 percent of the vote required to guarantee the Green Party a substantial subsidy in 2004. But as the candidates reached the finish line…Nader’s backers had to reckon with the short-term consequences: voting for Nader might get the Greens funding in 2004, but it might tip the current election from Gore to Bush. - Bruce Ackerman
Under the Voting with Dollars system, Nader supporters could have poured money into the Green Party while casting a vote for Gore, securing the 2004 election for the Democratic candidate while setting the Green Party on a path to a stronger future.
Second, Ackerman and Ayers propose that Patriot Dollars be transferred from voters to candidates through a blind trust. Under current campaign finance law, full disclosure is required for political donations, which the coauthors propose lead to quid pro quo – political favors in return for financial support. However, if Patriot Dollar donations were inherently secret, like ballots on Election Day, politicians would have less incentive to govern with preferential treatment towards donors, since they would never know for certain who their donors were.
Matching funds is already part of the U.S.’s current campaign finance system. When American’s sit down to do their taxes, they are given the opportunity to direct $3 of their paid taxes to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, an account from which candidates may elect to accept substantial campaign funding.
During the primaries, the fund will match the first $250 any citizen donates to a candidate, though the candidate is limited to $10 million in primary campaign spending.
For the general election, the candidates may opt to receive a public grant of $20 million for their campaign, which effectively caps their spending, and any private contribution made to the campaign may only be used for legal and accounting expenses associated with complying with campaign finance law.
From 1976 until 2000, this is how most campaigns were financed.
When the amount of money available to campaigns failed to keep up with the growing cost of national advertising, candidates discovered they stood a better chance if they opted-out. - Josh Israel, with ThinkProgress
In 2012, both Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of the Green Party participated in the system. In 2016, however, no single candidate has applied for funds from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Yet, Americans still put money into the account, and it continues to grow while going untouched.
Many proponents of matching funds and publicly financed campaigns recognize that a viable system is already in place; it just needs to be updated for the times.
When people do their taxes…there’s that check-off box that can remind people that public financing is a better way to do things, empower voters, and reset priorities. [Citizens] should check the box and show that it matters, there’s still an appetite. - Stephen Spaulding, Common Cause Senior Policy Counsel
Both Arizona and Maine already have a Clean Elections system in place for their statewide elections. In short, candidates who meet a set of criteria (measured in signatures and small $5 donations) determining substantial support for their candidacy receive equal funding from the state to finance their campaign. Candidates are not allowed to use additional fundraising dollars or to use their own personal money if they opt for public money.
In Arizona, in addition to funding candidate’s campaigns, the Clean Elections committee mails pamphlets detailing candidate platforms to registered voters, and funds political debates.
The objective of Clean Elections is to level the playing field for all citizens to run for political office, not just individuals who hold the support of special interest groups.
At a national level, Clean Elections could dramatically reduce the money flowing into political campaigns. An added benefit might be shorter, less egregious campaign seasons, and, by consequence, less divisiveness and scorn across party lines
The OCCUPIED Amendment
A.K.A the Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy Amendment. It’s certainly a mouthful, but in short the OCCUPIED Amendment was proposed in November of 2011, on the heels of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and sought to ban for-profit corporate money from U.S. election campaigns.
While the amendment failed in 2011, similar pieces of legislation have been proposed throughout the years.
CFR28 is a proposed 28th amendment to the constitution that would limit contributions to a political campaign from any individual or entity to 1% of the average American income, per election. Advocates believe this proposal would make elections more inclusive and democratic.
Campaigns would rely on public funding for the remainder of their costs. Outside organizations would still be able to advertise and market for candidates, but would have to do so without direct connection to the candidate, while the advertisement’s political intention would have to be transparent and made evident at the start of the message.
The group supporting CFR28 have described the proposed amendment in detail at www.campaignfinancereform.org.