Three Problems with Taxpayer Financing of Election Campaigns

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has introduced H.R. 1, a bill with two public financing components: one a pilot program for vouchers, and the other a conventional if generous subsidy program for small donations. I focus here on the latter. 

Public financing schemes have often focused on encouraging small donors in part to allegedly counter the influence of “Big Money.” The financing of campaigns by taxpayers fits easily into a number of dichotomies that structure our public discourse: small/large, vulnerable/powerful, poor/rich, left/right, and of course, friend/enemy. The realities are less exciting and persuasive than the rhetoric. 

It is an odd time to be pushing government spending on congressional candidates. Federal deficits are now approaching a trillion dollars annually. Small donor fundraising is much easier and much more successful than in the past. ActBlue, a “fundraising technology for the left [seeking] to democratize power and help small-dollar donors make their voices heard in a real way,” had a record election in 2018. It funneled over $1.6 billion to Democratic candidates.     

In that respect, this bill is entirely predictable in a highly partisan time. The government subsidy is six times the sum raised by small donations. A new majority is thus proposing a $9.6 billion (yes, billion) subsidy for its congressional candidates in the 2020 election. All things being equal, that would be a massive advantage for the party in that election. 

But things need not be equal. Such a huge subsidy would encourage the GOP to find small donors. Maybe “ActRed” would ready for 2020 and enjoy equal success. That’s not likely but let’s assume it is for purposes of argument.  

Where would the billions needed to finance this program come from? The funding  would involve new taxes or borrowing since it is new spending. So either current or future taxpayers would finance the program.  

Here’s one problem: the government would be using its power of coercion to force people to support candidates and parties they do not support (indeed, to support people they don’t want their children to marry). This coercion would happen more to Republicans than Democrats at first, but Republicans might get better at claiming the subsidies over time. We would end up with the government coercing everyone without regard to partisan commitments.  

Advocates of taxpayer financing also might think the scheme takes the side of “the people” (small donors) against the elite (current donors). ActBlue reports they had 4.9 million unique donors in 2018. That’s a large absolute number. But it constitutes about 3 percent of eligible voters in the United States. These ActBlue contributors are not average Americans. ActBlue donors are also a small portion of liberals in America. In 2016, about 26 percent of the nation identified as liberal or about 47 million people. Hence ActBlue got money from just over 10 percent of liberals. By any measure, ActBlue donors are a political elite. No doubt they are a political elite that believes their policy views represent what’s good for the nation and the average American. But they are not average Americans.  

Finally, this bill asks taxpayers to provide the parties with large sums for their campaigns. But ActBlue showed that the small donor elite can be mobilized, and Republicans have every incentive to match ActBlue’s success. Given that private political entities are doing well with small donors, why should the taxpayer be forced to support candidates and parties they do not want to support? Don’t taxpayers have better uses for $20 billion?