A Case for Public Financing of Political Campaigns

by David Mojica

           Regardless of political stripe, it seems that everyone agrees that corruption in our government is pervasive. We have seen case after case of powerful interests making donations and granting favors to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Strong financial connections exist between our public officials and influential individuals and interest groups. The only people who are free of this type of influence are the super-rich who happen to be politically inclined. We must ask ourselves whether it is fair that only the rich can afford to run for a political office without subjecting themselves to the influence of special interest groups in return for campaign funding. If we are all in agreement that we need significant change in our government, that our officials by-and-large are corrupt, that the two-party system is a polarizing and harmful element of our political system, and that more than anything we love and want to keep our representative democracy, then let’s examine how exactly our public officials get into office.

            More than anything, it takes money to become elected. How do candidates get that money? Through small private donations, yes, but large and long-running campaigns (remember that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama started their campaigns for the 2008 Presidential race in 2006) require much more money than can reasonably be expected to be gathered from small donations. It falls on contributions from labor unions, banks, pharmaceutical companies, ideological organizations such as the NRA or ACLU, corporations and other big money interests who are only concerned with what benefits them and not necessarily the best interests of society as a whole. The way to get around this is by publicly funding political campaigns, barring any campaign contributions and by strictly limiting the campaign period.

            A reasonable person may argue, “I wouldn’t want to fund anyone’s campaign. Better to put a cap on spending, but make them raise the money themselves.” This is certainly a valid point, but the problem with letting people raise the money themselves is that either they’re extremely wealthy (which leads to an elitist problem), or they’re beholden to the people who gave them the money to run (leading to unfair access, conflict of interest, and general corruption problems). But we are talking about politicians here; some level of corruption is pretty much inevitable, right? Suppose we set the limit low. For example, $40,000 maximum. The super wealthy won’t have too much of an advantage, because most people with a party backing could do that. (possibly many without it.) But do we really want to have potential candidates need party backing? Is a two-party system really a good thing? Most of us agree that it’s a polarizing and harmful element of our democracy. Isn’t it possible that even a person who couldn’t afford $40,000 could still be a good leader with strong ideas and a clear vision? Why should they be excluded from the opportunity to serve their communities in a public office? By barring private donations to political campaigns, and providing a budget to a candidate who gets say 20% of their constituents to sign a petition to get them on the ballot, we could effectively destroy the two-party system. What would that do? It’d open up the political process to the poor and disenfranchised and would make the candidates that did get elected beholden to the people who elected them rather than those who paid for their campaigns.

            Again, it is reasonable to argue that anyone serious has probably built up a following, and through dedicated fund raising could make $40,000 over a couple years for a campaign. That way the only people you would be ruling out are the people who didn’t care enough to plan ahead for their campaign. But how could a person build up a following outside of their circle of friends or family without money? The whole idea of a political campaign is to build up a following. Not only that, but why should a person have to spend “a couple of years” campaigning and raising money? If the idea is for regular people to be able to put on a run for office, don’t you think their families will go hungry when they’re fired from their jobs because they have to put all this effort into raising enough money for a run at a political office? So far we’ve only been talking, I think, about local government offices. What about a national election? At that point we’re talking about millions of dollars. If a candidate has to raise that money alone, doesn’t that open the door for special interests and lobbying groups to come buy them off? I’m proposing a system akin to the British system that only allows a short campaign period (thus requiring less money to sustain), equal opportunity for media time through publicly funded debates and allows for many parties and independent candidates to get their faces and messages out. Public funding is the way to go in order to ensure that our public officials are actually working for the public.