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ICPR supports efforts to explore using a small donor matching system or a taxpayer voucher system to move toward a system for public financing of campaigns in which politicians are dependent upon donations from the general public rather than upon a small number of wealthy special interests.

One of the harshest realities of modern American politics is that a candidate’s fundraising prowess is often represented as an important predictor of electoral success – more so than his or her experience, intelligence or commitment to public service. Public campaign financing is a sound option for minimizing such problems. Under a public financing system, candidates meeting certain thresholds of public support could draw campaign cash from a state-operated fund. Public campaign financing has been applied successfully in at least 25 states and new innovations are being studied around the country each year. States like Hawaii and Minnesota have implemented partial financing systems, so candidates can draw from both public and private sources of funds so they need to focus less on private fundraising. Other systems are more expansive, completely cutting out big donors. Maine is one of the states to have “clean elections,” where qualified candidates fund their campaign entirely with public funds, removing the need for fundraising. New York City has multiple matching funds, which magnifies the power of small donors.

Small Donor Matching Systems

 

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Why do we need reform?

In a large and complex representative democracy, there’s no good way around the fact that elections and campaigns cost money. And they’re only getting more expensive, forcing politicians to spend as much if not more time courting potential donors than meeting with average voters. This creates a dynamic where elected officials are forced to become overly reliant on funding from a small number of wealthy donors and special interests, possibly resulting in a less responsive approach to “everyday” voters.

Small Donor Democracies may be a solution. Here are some key facts to know:

  • In a small donor matching system, candidates who reach a certain level of funding in small contributions become eligible for matching funds – typically at a ratio that increases the impact of those donations.
  • Small Donor Democracy has been a staple of municipal elections in New York City for more than 20 years and also has been implemented in a number of other U.S. municipalities and states.
  • For example, mayoral candidates in New Haven, Connecticut receive $50 per contribution for contributions of $25 or greater and a 2-1 match for anything less. The New Haven Democracy Fund provides matching funds up to $125,000 to those candidates who meet a threshold of 200 contributions from distinct donors — all local residents — within the range of $10 to $370.
  • The small donor match typically comes from public funds. However, given fiscal pressures on municipalities, ICPR is also exploring “hybrid” approaches that could draw upon privately raised “democracy funds” in addition to public funds.

The Sunlight Foundation

The Sunlight Foundation is a well-respected nonprofit organization that uses civic tech, open data, policy analysis, and journalism to increase transparency in government and politics, particularly within the realm of campaign finance. Visit their site SunlightFoundation.com to read more about transparency in campaign finance.

Sponsors

Alphawood Foundation Chicago McCormick Foundation

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