The Future of Campaign Finance?

If you haven't already, you should check out my column today on the Supreme Court's decision to hear arguments in McComish v. Bennett, a case which deals with Arizona's public-financing law. Here are the important parts:

McComish deals with an aspect of Arizona's public-financing law that provides extra funds for candidates who opt into the system when their opponents opt out. Candidates are still bound by spending limits, but if their opponent goes beyond that limit, they are given the funds to match their opponent's spending.

The plaintiff's case is pretty straightforward: This program limits the free speech of privately funded candidates and groups, because it forces them to cut back on their spending, lest they advantage their opponents with public money. If money is speech and groups have the right to speak freely, the argument goes, then it is unfair to have a campaign-finance system that works by limiting the other guy.

As I write in the piece, there's good reason to think that Arizona's law is constitutional and has little effect on the free speech of privately funded candidates and groups. That said, if it is overturned, campaign-finance reformers have other options. For instance, there's nothing to stop states from working to expand the number of small-time donors by matching public funds to candidate contributions. In fact, a recent report from the Campaign Finance Institute suggests that a version of said approach -- used by New York City -- might serve as a model for the country at large.

New York's system is easy to understand. In a press release, CFI explains:

In 2009, the program provided $6 in matching funds for each of the first $175 that a participating candidate raised from New York City residents. For example, a $10 donation from a city resident would be worth $70 to a candidate, a $175 donation would be worth $1,225.

The majority of candidates in state and local elections receive most of their funds from donors who give $1,000 or more, and that is also true of New York City candidates who didn't participate in the system; on average, 64 percent of their funds came from donations of $1,000 or more, while only 17 percent came from small donors. By contrast, participating candidates raised 37 percent of their private money from small donors. And if the value of public funds is attributed to the donor who triggered them, participating candidates raised 65 percent of their funds from small donations of $250 or less.

A system like this gives candidates huge incentive to reach out to small donors and people who don't normally participate in the system. On a large enough scale -- as the Campaign Finance Institute notes -- this could be a nationally viable system and help progressives and others provide a counterweight to the force of corporate money. If you get a chance, you should read the full report.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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