Minor candidates are main focus of federal election funding program

September 19, 2012

President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney have little need for public funding for their campaigns, given that, together, they have about $1 billion behind them. But Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, could use a little help: She had raised only $283,000 as of the end of July.

Her campaign officials, however, say they are having trouble getting the public funding fast enough to pay the campaign debts. They have been quick to find a culprit and allege a minor conspiracy by Democrats on the Federal Election Commission, hinting that the commissioners are seeking to limit Stein’s ability to peel off liberals who would otherwise support Obama.

In a letter to the panel, the campaign’s general counsel wrote, “It is our understanding that one reason for the delays . . . was due to that fact that the Democratic Commissioners were already in Charlotte, NC, for the Democratic National Convention, and were thus unavailable to sign off.”

Campaign manager Ben Manski echoed those concerns.

“You have staff who have been diligent in working with us, but it’s unclear whether the commissioners themselves want to see this money released,” he said. “You have an election administration that is bipartisan — it’s not nonpartisan.”

Ellen Weintraub, one of the Democratic commissioners, said there is no basis for the Green Party’s charge.

“I don’t know why they sent that — it’s not accurate,” she said of the letter. “Their request is being treated exactly the same as every other request that has ever been made. They got the standard form letter.”

Further, commissioners often vote on matters remotely, Weintraub said.

The program for federal funding of presidential elections is meant to give candidates a way to pay for their races without relying on big donors. Lately, its only purpose has been to fund minor candidates, who may have little hope of winning any electoral votes but nevertheless have big hopes of influencing the broader debate. Besides Stein, libertarian Gary Johnson and Republican Buddy Roemer qualified for public funding this election cycle.

The system, which matches small donations during the primaries and provides a large grant for the general-election campaign, has not kept pace with the ballooning cost of the presidential contest. Obama opted out in 2008 and he and Romney have opted out this cycle, avoiding the spending limits that go along with public financing.

On Thursday, Reps. David E. Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) will introduce a bill that would overhaul public funding for the presidential campaigns and create a new system for Congress. The proposal and several competing measures from other Democrats would match small donations five to one with federal money in an attempt to boost the power of small donors.

Republicans tend to be headed in the opposite direction, advocating that the system be scrapped entirely. The GOP-led House approved such a step late last year and Republicans have introduced several measures that would end public funding for the parties’ conventions.

In the meantime, money for the program is piling up. Taxpayers fill its coffers by checking a box on their tax returns to contribute $3 to the fund. It now has $231.7 million. (The money is kept at the Treasury Department, not the election commission.)

With that much money and not many candidates hoping to participate, it’s no wonder the Green Party is concerned about the holdup.

Stein, who recently spoke at an event for the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, has qualified to appear on the ballot in 38 states, but her lack of money has made it difficult to get beyond that, Manski said.

In a recent news release on poll results, her campaign wrote a headline saying, “Stein at remarkable 2%.” The candidate is calling for a Green New Deal that would create 25 million new jobs in four years, the majority working directly for the government.

For now, the FEC says it is not done checking contributions to her campaign to make sure they qualify for matching funding. Payment is scheduled to be made Sept. 28.

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