THE BIG STATES are the ones you remember on campaign finance, but the less populous states are often where the excess is. California had a $23 million Senate race last year; the candidates, Alan Cranston and Ed Zschau, spent over $11 million each. In Florida, the Paula Hawkins-Bob Graham epic cost almost $13 million; the Pennsylvania, Missouri and North Carolina contests were all above $9 million. But California has a ninth of the U.S. population; 7 million people voted there. The cost per voter was $3.27. The same is generally true for the other big states.

Compare them with South Dakota, 45th of the 50 states in population, where James Abdnor and Thomas Daschle competed for the favor of the 293,000 people who voted by spending more than $3 million each, $6.8 million in all. The cost per voter was $23.10. In Nevada the candidates lavished $4.7 million on an eventual 248,000 voters -- over $19 apiece. In Vermont ($3.2 million spread across 190,000 votes) the unit cost was $16.84, in Idaho $14, in North Dakota, just over $11.

The money that produced these figures wasn't home-grown; a lot of it came from here. Senators will tell you they rely much less than their House counterparts on PACs, and that is true. PAC money made up 34 percent of House campaign receipts in the last election cycle, and only 21 percent of Senate receipts. But averages deceive. In South Dakota, Nevada and Vermont, a third of what was spent came from PACs; in Idaho about two fifths; in North Dakota nearly half. A dollar in a small state can have much more effect than in a large one. Particularly in high-stakes elections such as the last, where control of the Senate was at issue, small states become important PAC and party hunting grounds.

The Boren-Byrd campaign finance reform bill, now on the Senate floor, would alter this landscape. It would offer an alternative to the present system: public financing for Senate candidates who would agree to abide by spending limits. The general-election ceiling for a candidate in one of these smaller states would be $950,000, indexed for inflation, plus $636,500 for any primary. There would also be limits on what candidates could take from PACs.

Republican critics say the bill would entrench both incumbents and the current Democratic majority. We doubt it. Sen. Ted Stevens, the stoutest critic, listed the expenditures in last year's Senate races, then said in defense of the present system: "You will see some challengers raised more money than the incumbents they defeated. You will find that some incumbents raised more money than the challengers who defeated them anyway. You will find that many challengers did not raise as much money as their incumbent opponents and still defeated them. You will find some incumbents who did not raise much money, did not campaign much, and were overwhelmingly reelected. In other words, the problem of getting elected is a personal problem in each state with each candidate's constituents."

We agree -- and that is precisely why a different financing scheme will not have a partisan effect. But money, even if it fails to determine outcomes, can still distort and sour the system; it does so now. There is too much of it, and too much reliance on it. Boren-Byrd would reduce its influence. Particularly in the low-population states -- but to some extent in all -- it could help restore the Senate to the people it represents. "The elective process gives legitimacy to our whole form of government," Sen. Boren remarked last week. The bill would burnish the legitimacy of the elective proces