Our political system is corrupt. The people it elects routinely do things for the corpartions that paid for their campaign over the wishes of people who voted for them. At least part of this is procedural: running a campaign these days is very expensive, and the only candidates who get money are the ones who agree with moneyed interests.

It’s important to realize that this doesn’t require first-order corruption. I don’t need to pay Joe Senator to vote my way. The problem is deeper than that. Instead, I offer to support candidates who vote my way. At a first glance, it seems like nothing wrong is going on here! I’m donating to candidates who agree with me, they’re accepting money from people they agree with. Isn’t that the American way?

But money, for better or worse, is required for a modern campaign. Money pays for advertising, legitimacy, campaigning costs, and all the other things that give your campaign attention. So it ends up that the only candidates who have a chance to win an election are the ones who align themselves with the moneyed interests. (There are a few exceptions, like Howard Dean, but for the most part this is true.)

The end result is that the moneyed interests end up controlling the government, without doing anything wrong. More enforcement and regulation, while helpful, is unlikely to solve the problem. As long as money wins campaigns, the people with the most money will win the most campaigns. The only solution is to take the money out altogether.

The good news is that this is doable. The solution is called “Clean Money, Clean Elections” (CMCE). First you have a qualifying period, where possible candidates test their support by collecting $5 donations. When they have enough, they bring these small donations down to the statehouse and become a candidate. They voluntarily sign a clean campaign contract, promising to only use federally-provided funds for their campaign and not raise or spend money from any other source. Then the government gives them a set amount for their campaign.

If “someone else” spends money to support a CMCE candidate, that money plus a penalty fee can be subtracted from the candidate’s federal funding. If the candidate runs out of federal funding, they can be sent a bill and kicked out of the CMCE program. If one candidate decides not to participate in the CMCE program, the CMCE candidates can be given additional federal funds to match the spending of that candidate.

So what’s so great about this system? It’s completely constitutional, because it’s voluntary. Candidates decide whether they want to participate in the CMCE program or not. But no sane person would opt-out. If you did, you’d have to work hard to raise money, your competitors could easily match whatever money you raised, and the voters would be told repeatedly by your federally-funded competitors that you were a cheat owned by special interests trying to get around the system.

And voters get to decide whether to contribute to the system or not — it would be funded the same way the current matching-funds system is. On your income tax form, there’d be a little box you could check if you supported the system. If you did, $100 or so of your taxes would be earmarked for the CMCE program. (You wouldn’t pay any more in taxes, though!)

It’s comprehensive, because the candidates promise not to use private money at all. If they try to break the rules, they’re kicked out and sent a bill. (A pretty big disincentive, see the previous paragraph for why they don’t want to get kicked out.)

And it’s cheap. The government already spends millions on matching funds. Now instead of having to match whatever amounts the candidates can drum up, they just give each campaign a set amount. And on the Federal level, they don’t even need to pay for television advertising if they don’t want to — they give away the airwaves, so they can just require the stations give the candidates TV time for free. (The cost would still be subtracted from the funds, though, so they don’t buy up all our airtime.)

The best part is, we know the system works. The system is law for state candidates in Arizona and Maine. It’s been upheld after repeated constitutional challenges. In Arizona, practically every statewide candidate participated. The number of voters contributing to campaigns (now in the form of $5 contributions) tripled. Voter turnout increased. Voter choice increased. The number of Latino candidates trippled. The number of contested Senate races doubled.

But most importantly, the money lost. In 1998, 79% of all races were won by the candidate with far more money than the other candidates. In 2002, that was true for only 2% of races. For 98% of races, all candidates had equal funding.

For more on CMCE, visit Public Campaign, a group trying to pass similar laws across the country.

posted February 11, 2004 11:40 AM (Politics) (17 comments) #


Trippi Dumps Dean
The Trippi Story
The Furious Rise of the Anonymous Writer
Nader’s Negligence
Campaign Finance Reform: The Problem and Solution
Third Parties: Why They Spoil and How to Stop It
Gerrymandering: How Politicians Steal Votes and You Can Return Them
Up is Down: How Stating the False Hides the True
Down is Up: What This Stuff Is
Up With Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt


So here’s what I want to know: why would anyone be against CMCE? What’s the downside?

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 11, 2004 11:44 AM #

I like the system described above, but I wonder how applicable it is in states that are more heterogeneous than Maine and Arizona. For example, do all candidates for state representative get the same amount of funding? If so, is it really all that useful to give the same amount of campaign cash to a guy in an area like southern Illinois, where campaigning may be cheaper, and the same amount to a candidate campaigning in Chicago, where it may cost a good bit more to campaign? If you give the same money to both candidates, does this create some inequities of its own, and if you give differing amounts, who sets up the scale for the campaign cash?

posted by Chris Karr at February 11, 2004 12:47 PM #

I meant that each candidate gets the same amount of money has his competitors, but certainly different races could get different amounts of money. I’d let Congress decide how much to give each candidate, but it should be enough that they can make their views clear to the people who care.

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 11, 2004 01:04 PM #

Spiffy answers. Thanks.

I’m just trying to figure out how we can build the system above without introducing something like gerrymandering where you see things like the structure and procedure of the process corrupt the outcome. It’s a great idea though.

posted by Chris Karr at February 11, 2004 01:09 PM #

One would argue that it stifles political speech.

There really isn’t that much money in politics. We spend more money in advertising breakfast cereals each year than we do on the Presidency each quadrennium. I’d rather just have all donations limited to individuals, and everything disclosed down to the nickel.

posted by Geof at February 11, 2004 03:20 PM #

The standard argument against such funding limits is that incumbents can turn their office into a free-publicity machine, and so challengers need to raise more money to be equal in practice (I’m not advocating this, just relating it).

On the “special interest” argument, Ross Perot had a very funny twist on it. He basically said, as a super-rich guy funding his own campaign, that he was his own special interest - so if you agreed with him, you already agreed with the people funding his campaign (i.e., himself).

So there’s non-obvious problems from both directions.

posted by Seth Finkelstein at February 11, 2004 03:21 PM #

I never thought Presidential candidates would opt out of the matching funds program for that election, but Bush, Dean and Kerry did opt out, I’m pretty sure.

They all did so because they could raise more money than the matching funds could provide and they didn’t have to comply with the rules for matching funds - those generated from the income tax return checkoff system.

I think the rules for the Presidential matching included a campaign spending limit.

posted by Scooter at February 11, 2004 03:29 PM #

Scooter, they did that because President Bush did. Under CMCE, they could be given matching donations so they could compete with President Bush without going outside the system.

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 11, 2004 03:33 PM #

This analysis ignores the fact that corporations have control of the increasingly consolidated media. This system simply shifts the corporate incentive to more directly manipulate public perception via the media.

So, instead of the politicians paying for ads, the corporations will do it directly (either through ads or “news.” See Fox News). Their guy will still win.

posted by Daniel Muniz at February 11, 2004 04:28 PM #

As others have pointed out, you can make a free speech argument against it, which I am sensitive to.

I’ve run into this while doing election stuff during this campaign cycle. Anything you print out that advocates for the election of a candidate counts against your personal $2,000 limit to the candidate. Whereas, if you’re protesting against government policy, you can spend as much money as you want. Used the the later, I felt stiffled.

But on the whole, I believe we must end the system of legalized bribery that is today’s campaign finance system. So my only arguments with you would be on the technicalities of this system.

  1. It is unclear whether you intend this system to apply to all elections or just federal races. I think it would need to be implemented federally, and on a state-by-state basis.
  2. I think your qualifying period donations are too small. Running a campaign is expensive, even in the early stages before matching funds are doled out. Also, you should be clear that one can become a candidate without qualifying — the candidate just won’t become eligible for federal funding. You don’t address this problem in your write up, but Public Campaign does: “To cover minor costs during the qualifying period, candidates are permitted to raise a limited amount of seed money from private sources in amounts not exceeding $100 per contributor.”
  3. I think your $100 check off contribution is way too high if you aren’t going to charge people for checking it. That will have a large effect on tax revenue!
  4. This is nonsense: “And it’s cheap. The government already spends millions on matching funds. Now instead of having to match whatever amounts the candidates can drum up, they just give each campaign a set amount.” Collecting a set number of $5 donations will be significantly easier than qualifying under the current system, leading to many more candidates taking advantage of the money, leading to it becoming more expensive. More candidates is a good thing, but we must be honest about the cost.
  5. Free airtime for candidates would be huge even under the current system. But it’s a controversial issue (i.e., special interests oppose it — Media companies love getting all that $$$) and so you shouldn’t just toss it in as an aside. It should either be a cornerstone of the CMCE plan, or a separate reform.
  6. How do you deal with special interests spending independently on behalf of or against a candidate? This is hard to limit without limiting free speech. I think your proposed solution ( “If ‘someone else’ spends money to support a CMCE candidate, that money plus a penalty fee can be subtracted from the candidate’s federal funding”) would be unconstitutional because the candidate has no control over other groups’ spending. Public Citizen proposes giving the target some “limited” matching funds. That sounds better than your idea.

Here’s some other things that might be good features of campaign finance reform:

  1. Multiple match for small donations.
  2. Massively restrict donations limits to candidates to $100 or $250. As a side benefit, this would make it harder to compete outside the system without being self-funded.
  3. Tax credits for political donations (My state will give you a credit for up to $50 per year).

You’ll notice that some of these are contrary to the idea of fully funded elections. That’s because I think we should discuss whether or not small-scale contributions (viz Wellstone (avg: $50) or Dean (avg: $77)) are beneficial to democracy. I can attest that contributing to a campaign makes you feel more involved.

posted by Luke Francl at February 11, 2004 06:16 PM #

Money doesn’t win elections, votes do. If it was mandatory for each citizen to cast a vote then perhaps we’d have a more representative government. Of course, one should also be able to cast a ‘non-vote’ i.e. you present yourself at the polling location and assert your right not to vote. You can decide not to vote but you must turn up. Also, I need a CMCE bureaucracy like I need a hole in my head. I don’t want to spend one red cent of my tax money on elections and I don’t care that it wouldn’t affect my total tax bill. Now here’s an idea: candidates can accept contributions of any amount from an individual i.e. no groups, no companies, no unions, no PACS, no RNC’s or DNC’s etc. Candidates should also be allowed to buy votes (or at least try to). However, the act of voting remains private and anonymous, and the candidates have to accept that they may be double-crossed on the day. Term limits wouldn’t do much harm either; say 8 yrs in the House and 18yrs in the senate.

posted by KJO at February 12, 2004 07:34 AM #


Yes, you’ve hit on it!

Your plan goes right back to Lincoln’s unforgettable Gettysburg Address, when he forcefully resolved that the “government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, for the billionaries, shall not perish from the earth.”

posted by Luke Francl at February 12, 2004 10:12 AM #

“If ‘someone else’ spends money to support a CMCE candidate, that money plus a penalty fee can be subtracted from the candidate’s federal funding.”

OK, so what I do if I want to screw candidate A is to make a really ineffectual “attack ad” about candidate B “Paid for by People Who Really Like Candidate A.” Candidate A will lose the cost of the ad campaign plus a penalty and if I really do a good job of being bad, the “attack ad” will actually help candidate B.

Or, if you think negative ads wouldn’t apply somehow, I make an ad about Candidate A which highlights something considered positive by a small minority of americans but negative by a majority. It helps his chances of getting the minority’s vote but hurts his chances with the majority. He still ultimately has to pay by losing the equivalent amount of money which he can’t spend the way he would choose to spend it.

posted by extra88 at February 13, 2004 07:57 AM #

A group did what extra88 is proposing in the recent Maine caucus. A fictional group called “Citizens for Homosexual Marriage” sent out a mailing “endorsing” Howard Dean and another local candidate.

Aaron’s notion of “punishing” candidates for outside group spending is the most troubling part of his proposal. And I do not believe it is part of the real CMCE proposal.

posted by Luke Francl at February 13, 2004 10:03 AM #

extra88, that’s why I said it can be subtracted. Some group would have to decide whether it was an attempt to evade the rules or the work of an opponent.

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 13, 2004 11:29 AM #

If you are interested in campaign finance reform, you might enjoy my guide to types of outside groups, about the different kind of political organizations that influence elections; and my list of major outside groups which provides a semi-comprehensive list of the major 2004 groups and how much money they are trying to raise. However, all that could be up in the air: the FEC is expected to rule on the legality of “soft money” donations to 527s organizations today.

posted by Luke Francl at February 18, 2004 11:39 AM #

You see my problem with all your ideas is your solving the symptoms not the problem.

My question is what is the problem and is it solveable? Is the problem simple the public is too crazed for the powerful, rich and famous? If we ban spending period on campaigns, what other effective means of getting the votes with out using money is there? I can’t think of many.

If society wasn’t crazy for the rich, powerful and famous, would the little guys (that is poor)still get the votes to win. I am not sure, because the rich, powerful, and famous either are already well-known or have more money to advertise. Getting your name out there is the real key because not many are going to vote for a name they do not recognize.

Should we just make it plain and simple, and have campaigns where there is one giant post of what each candidates view is and their qualifications for the job? And is this realistic?

And is matching funds fair to the taxpayer? I think it is unreal the amounts of money that is spent on campaigning, but what I can’t believe is my taxed money is going to match these funds.

All these rules are just another repeat of our history complicating, regulating and adding new rules everyday to our laws (i.e. our tax system).

With all these innovations in technology, its about time for some innovations in government policies and solutions to government problems?

posted by Lacy at February 20, 2004 08:29 PM #

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