A $3 Vote for Competitive Elections

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By Robert D. Lenhard
Saturday, March 8, 2008

Our system for public financing of presidential campaigns is badly broken. Our lawmakers know it, and they must decide whether to abandon the system or to increase the amount of money available to participating candidates. They won't make this choice before the November election. But by April 15, more than 130 million Americans will have done so.

The entire federal public financing system depends on the decision of each taxpayer to check the box toward the top of Form 1040. Check yes, and the federal government is required to allocate $3 of your tax payment to fund the program. Check no, and none of your taxes go to this program. This is the only chance you have to decide how the federal government will spend a portion of your tax dollars.

When Congress considers whether to reform or abandon the public financing system, one fact in particular will be noted: Taxpayer participation has fallen steadily, from 28 percent in 1981 to approximately 10 percent over the past several years. Whether this is because of ideological opposition to publicly financed elections, ignorance of what checking the box will do or a mistaken belief that participation will raise their tax bill, nine out of every 10 taxpayers decide not to send any of their tax dollars into this program.

It's a shame because, by many measures, the program has worked quite well. In presidential elections from 1976 until 2000, every major-party nominee chose to accept public financing, with its accompanying rules, in both the primary and general elections.

In the primaries, the system encourages candidates to focus on small donors by matching contributions of $250 or less, dollar for dollar. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and other candidates built successful fundraising strategies around small donors to reap the advantages of this system.

In the general election, the government fully funds the candidates who opt in, freeing them from the time commitments and other entanglements that come with asking for money. The system also seems to have made elections more competitive. Since 1976, six presidential elections have pitted incumbents against challengers; in those contests in which both accepted public financing, the challengers won half the time.

What's behind the current crisis? Spending caps, which are a condition of receiving public financing. This year, those caps come to about $50 million in the primaries and $85 million in the general election. That sounds like a lot of money, but consider it in context: Both George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry chose not to take public financing in the 2004 primaries. Between the two of them, they raised about $500 million -- or more than five times the amount that they would have been allowed to spend, combined, under the 2004 caps.

In the current campaign, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opted out of public financing in the primaries, and each has raised more than $150 million with almost five months still to go until the conventions. John McCain plans to leave the public financing system, having already raised and spent almost all of the money, about $54 million, he would be allowed under the cap. While McCain trails the Democrats in fundraising so far, he is surely aware that in 2004, Kerry raised 80 percent of his primary money after Super Tuesday, when he had effectively clinched the nomination.

It's reasonable for McCain to expect that his best fundraising days in the primary cycle are still ahead of him. The irony is that McCain himself is partly responsible for the escalation in dollars being raised: The 2002 campaign finance law that he championed raised the limit on contributions from individuals and indexed it to inflation. It went from $1,000 to, this year, $2,300.

No one believes that this system can be saved without raising the cap on what candidates can spend and, similarly, raising the amount of money that taxpayers are willing to spend on the program. This is the political choice that Congress and the American people will soon face.

By April 15, more than 130 million American will have told the IRS whether they support public financing of presidential election campaigns. This choice will make a difference, both in allowing the government to set aside money to pay for the 2008 election and, more important, for the life of the program beyond. I believe the program has performed well and should be improved, so I will be checking yes.

The writer is a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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