The Future of Public Campaign Financing and the Impact on Women Candidates
Posted by: Antoinette Bonsignore
Do women candidates benefit from the public financing? The short answer is yes - public financing invites a diverse candidate pool. Public financing of campaigns generally involves candidates opting to receive taxpayer dollars to fund their campaigns. In order to qualify candidates must adhere to strict contribution limits – sometimes as little as $100 per individual - as well as strict spending limits. The spending limits requirements range from caps on how much can be spent during primaries to how much candidates can spend of their own money. Once a candidate qualifies for public financing – such as collecting enough contributions from small donors -- they then become eligible to receive public funding. Theoretically public financing removes or reduces the corrupting influence of large corporations, lobbyists, and other special interests seeking to buy elections and buy candidates. This then reduces the constant, single-minded focus on fundraising allowing candidates to better address the issues affecting voters’ lives. In today’s ever evolving Citizens United atmosphere – the need to reduce the corporate and special interest influence in campaigns is greater than ever.
Women entering politics for the first time benefit from public financing because the campaign spending gap between challengers and incumbents is decreased. Political scientists studying public financing laws have found that public financing increases the number of women running for office; and women are more likely to opt into public financing while men are less likely. Challengers are also more likely to participate while incumbents are less likely. Research also shows that establishing contribution limits benefits challengers against incumbents; and low contribution limits make elections more competitive but high contribution limits and/or no limits benefit incumbents.
The League of Women Voters fully supports public financing as well as matching fund trigger provisions in states offering public financing. Trigger provisions provide additional funding when an opponent opts out and receives contributions or spends more than the candidate that opts in. The Brennan Center for Justice is an excellent resource for information dealing with ongoing litigation involving state public financing laws. There are lots of resources available for voters interested in finding out about the Citizen Funded Elections movement and the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752 and H.R. 1826).
In 1998 the voters of Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. The program has increased the number of women and minorities running for office in Arizona. The referendum was passed in reaction to Arizona elections corruption scandals. The Act set up a full and voluntary public financing system for legislative and statewide races. Some Arizona candidates challenged the “triggered funds” provision contained in the Act claiming that it violated their First Amendment right to free speech. Opponents said that the fear of “triggered” funds kicking in kept them from raising and spending money – that this fear censored candidates that opted out of the public financing system. The theory is that a candidate that opts out will spend right up to the triggering threshold but not any more– thereby limiting that candidate’s First Amendment rights.
One of the more critical things the Roberts Court majority revealed in Citizens United is the Court’s never-ending desire to expand upon previous Court rulings establishing the theory that money equals speech. And if the Roberts Court majority continues to build on this theory that money equals speech then all campaign spending restrictions will inevitably collide with the right of free speech. The constitutionality of the triggered funding provision of the Act will now be decided the U.S. Supreme Court in McComish v. Bennett.