Benefits of Public Financing

Brennan Center For Justice - Laura Moy, Marcus Williams

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC,[2] a torrent of money has flowed into American elections. The 2010 elections that followed Citizens United were among the most expensive in our nation’s history. Total spending was an estimated $3.6 billion[3]—an amount expected to rise dramatically in 2012. As the level of money involved in our elections steadily escalates, there is increasing concern about the ways that heightened campaign spending can purchase favorable policy outcomes.

Among the most vital tools to combat the corrupting influence of outsized campaign spending is public funding of elections. For more than three decades, public financing programs at the federal, state, and municipal levels have served, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, “as a means of eliminating the improper influence of large private contributions . . . .”[4] Since the 1970s, federal courts have consistently relied upon the compelling governmental interest in curbing corruption in upholding public financing systems from constitutional challenge.[5]

But in June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of Arizona’s public financing system. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, the court declared that Arizona’s so-called trigger funds—additional public grants made available to a publicly funded candidate facing high opposition spending—burdened the First Amendment rights of those who opposed publicly funded candidates.

While the latest Supreme Court ruling will force changes to Arizona’s public financing system (and other systems with similar trigger provisions), it contained a crucial silver lining for advocates of campaign finance reform: The Court affirmed the overall constitutionality of public financing. In unambiguous terms, the Court made clear that “governments may engage in public financing of election campaigns and . . . doing so can further significant governmental interests, such as the state interest in preventing corruption.”[6]

As advocates and policymakers seek to respond to the growing levels of spending in elections by shoring up existing public financing systems and adopting new ones, it is crucial that they highlight the time-tested anti-corruption interests that public financing advances. They should also note several other benefits that flow from public financing.

Publicly funding elections promotes numerous benefits in addition to fighting corruption, all of which bolster the case for public financing. By focusing exclusively on the significant anti-corruption benefits of public financing, advocates have sometimes overlooked these other ways that public funding programs enhance the legitimacy of government. Funding programs do not only reduce the opportunity for corruption and strengthen our perception of government; they also promote contested and competitive elections, foster diversity in the electoral process, and encourage voter-centered campaigns.  

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