Let's explore the wisdom of publicly funded elections

I have heard that one way to limit the negative effects of lobbying in the U.S. would be to publicly fund elections. What are the downsides to this plan? Would it be legal under the First Amendment?


Of course it would be legal under the First Amendment. The trickier question is whether it would be constitutional to forbid private funding in addition to the public funding.

Assuming you mean a system that disallows private contributions:

One potential downside is in granting an (additional) advantage to the incumbent. Because the incumbent’s name and persona are normally going to be better known than a challenger’s (excepting independently-famous candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sonny Bono), if the opportunity to overcome this disadvantage through spending more money campaigning is removed, then incumbents will win a larger share of elections than they already do.

Whether this is an acceptable trade-off is a complex question.

Elections in the UK are publicly funded, are they not?

If so, does the system there overwhelmingly favor the incumbent? I am not quite sure how the system works in the UK, but I was under the impression that you vote more for a party than a particular candidate. Is that accurate?


Whenever a discussion like this comes up, I find that most folks are blissfully unaware as to how much of an elected official’s time is spent in fundraising:

In an atmosphere like this–cold calling potential donors, glad-handing fat-cats, flying to another campaign event–that some officials see large lobbyist contributions as a way to, say, get a weekend back with their family instead of spending it pressing the flesh at another rubber chicken dinner?

I don’t really know if public financing is the way to go, but IMO folks should have all the facts before deciding one way or the other.

US presidential elections were publicly funded from 1976-2008.

This is particularly at issue in elections for the House. Presidential elections will generate lots of publicity for the challenger, but individual congressional elections much less so.

Note that this is a consequence of campaign finance restrictions put in place thus far. Because an official cannot receive contributions from any particular individual or corporation above certain limits, it’s necessary to spend more time reaching more individuals and corporations.

Per this article, the public funding is pretty limited in scope:

Based on this article, it private funding is available, and its dominance is an issue:

Campaign spending in the UK is subject to some limits that the U.S. doesn’t have:

Since television advertising is a major expense, prohibiting the buying of it radically alters the shape of campaign finance in the UK vs. the U.S.

And, it should be noted that the U.S. does have some public financing in some elections, so it’s not totally alien to us.

Less so than the U.S., but as the British financing model isn’t all that different from the American one, I don’t think it’s that conclusive.

My issue is determining how to choose who to fund, and by how much. The California recall election brought out a ton of candidates for governor, and I can only imagine what would happen if anyone could get a piece of the funding pie. I might run for office if I was between jobs or retired, just to use the money to pay for travels around giving speeches.


I imagine every conceivable aspect of this was covered at some point in this thread of mine from 2012 (it ran to 7 pages).

Wasn’t Gary Coleman a candidate that year?

Why should I pay taxes so that politicians can apply for their jobs? I’d rather restrict both private and public funding.

Another issue is that this gives the advantage to incumbents, who can get their message out without spending campaign funds just by going out in public.


I’'m very much in favor of public funding of elections, but this is a tough nut to crack in a fair way. My general thought is that candidates should be able to raise a respectable amount of private money before they qualify to appear on the ballot – say, $200,000 for a congressional election, or something like that.

To qualify for the ballot, they should have to gain a pretty sizable number of signatures. Say, 15,000 in a typical congressional district. Once you qualify, somehow I think metering out funds so that candidates who are polling very poorly closer to the election don’t get as much money as top contenders do would also be fair.

But you’re right, it’s a difficult issue once you start digging into it.

This. Why pay so they can tax me more? Lobbying may not be the great devil that it’s made out to be.

I’m seeing it more this way: there might come a time when no one in the private sector thinks of funding anyone.

It’s not? It’s been said that in the former Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism, but in the United States, capitalism triumphed over democracy. The Citizens United decision pretty much formalized the de facto ruling corporate oligarchy. Nothing – and I mean nothing – can be legislated in this country that disturbs the dominant corporate interests – not meaningful health care reform, not meaningful regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, not meaningful environmental regulation, not meaningful public broadcasting – nothing. Democrats are closet corporatists pretending to be populists, and Republicans just flaunt corporatism as a virtue. No one has a hope in hell of holding any position of power without corporate support and consequently being totally beholden to their sponsors. Want to rethink that statement?

The question of public funding isn’t to replace private funding altogether, it’s to provide a limited source of campaign funding that, in conjunction with limitations and transparency on private funding, might offer some glimmer of hope of politicians actually being accountable to the public interest instead of being completely beholden to their corporate masters.

You think there will come a time when the private sector ceases to be self-serving?

My first thought is that general elections should always be publicly funded. I’d rather have the voter rolls and vote counts be kept under strict control of the state.

For party primary elections, I could see requiring the parties to pay for them. But I think there’s a public interest in having parties have public elections rather than closed-door selections of candidates. So publicly funded elections can be justified. And some states (like here in California) in longer have party primaries, but free-for-all primaries where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, face off in the general. This type of primary should be publicly funded just like the general elections.

I think the real problem with publicly funded elections are special elections, which are held outside the regular schedule. And typically have very low turn-out. These are a waste of money and with the low-turn are not very democratic. I’d rather these not be held at all (that is, combine it with next regularly scheduled election), so that funding is not an issue.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And reading this thread further, I see people are mostly talking about publicly funded campaigns, rather than elections. There’s too much conflation between an election (where people vote) and a campaign (where people are asked to vote a certain way).

In principle, I think campaigns should be privately funded by those who have an interest in it. But I can see a public interest in giving a stronger voice to campaigns that are popular, but not well funded.

My main concern is that public campaign funding would give too much power to political parties. That is, if public money is given to a campaign simply because of its party affiliation, rather than polling. I don’t like how the major parties make it difficult for other parties to get on the ballot. If they can also limit campaign funding to other parties as well, it’ll increase the major parties’ power too much.

Along with public campaign funding, there should be regulations on the media where advertising is bought, to prevent exploitative pricing. That goes both ways: media should charge fair prices, but they should get a fair price. Free air time is effectively taxing media at an unfair rate. This regulation should only apply to campaign ad buys made exclusively with public money. Let the market find its own prices for ad buys that use any amount of private money.

I think most responders interpreted the OP as being about campaign funding, as did I. Perhaps it wasn’t, but that’s certainly the hot-button issue in the US today.

A valid concern, but it’s easily managed by requiring a minimum number of voter endorsements to qualify for funding. Basically all one is trying to do is distinguish serious candidates from members of some Pythonesque “Extremely Silly Party”. The two-party duopoly is indeed a problem but public campaign funding need not make it worse and might even help diversify the political landscape.

The funding of the elections has been coming up regular in California. When the proposition to change the primary elections to a top-two regardless of party was on the ballot, the parties complained that it gave control of their candidates to the public at large, instead of their members. The counterpoint was that the public at large was paying for the election. And it’s not a trivial cost–I’d guess many tens of millions for a statewide election in California.

And recently the issue came up in the LA school board about whether to hold a special election for a vacant seat or make an appointment. It’ll cost several million dollars to hold that election.

So when thinking about publicly funded campaigns, it’s useful to think about how much we’re already paying for the elections.

I don’t know if it’s easily managed, but there’s nothing in principle preventing it. The problem is the two big parties are very aggressive in defending their perks. It’s generally only possible to remove them via voter initiative.