Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is barely registering in the polls, but in recent months, an infusion of cash has enabled her campaign to pay an award-winning advertising firm, host parties and rent office space in pricey Brooklyn.
The source of a good chunk of the money: taxpayers.
Stein is the only candidate on the November ballot who is relying on public money to help pay campaign bills. In addition to her own fundraising, she has received four federal payments totaling $456,000 under the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, a moribund program whose critics call it the “loser’s fund.”
The federal fund — with $315 million now sitting in reserve — has gone largely untouched in the 2016 race, which still has 103 candidates reporting some level of financial activity, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The public financing law was passed during the Watergate era as a way to minimize the influence of moneyed interests in politics and give lesser-known candidates a fair shake, funded through a $3 voluntary checkoff on individual federal income tax returns. Candidates who agreed to limit their outside funding and met other requirements were eligible for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer financing.
But the system lost its luster after 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), fueled by record online donations, opted not to take public money so that he could raise as much as he wanted. Obama’s Republican rival that year, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), was the last major-party candidate to partake in the public financing system.
The decline of the public campaign fund reflects the seismic shifts over the past eight years in how elections are financed, with the rise of megadonors bankrolling super PACs and the increasing ability of candidates to raise large sums online, often in small increments. Taxpayers have also expressed less interest in contributing to the public fund — with less than 6 percent checking the box in 2015, down from a high of about 29 percent in 1980.
Neither Democrat Hillary Clinton nor Republican Donald Trump has applied for the funding. Nor has Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson. The only other candidate to qualify for taxpayer money, Democrat Martin O’Malley, received just over $1 million in public funds before dropping out of the primary in February.
Stein’s campaign manager, Gloria Mattera, said Stein believes in public financing as a way to equalize the playing field among candidates. “Campaign finance is a broken system,” Mattera said.
The campaign fund’s downgraded stature has prompted a debate over whether the money should be collected in the future — or if the existing pot of funds should be diverted to other causes.
Some critics, such as Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), question why taxpayer money should go to who he calls “fringe candidates” with no chance of winning.
“This is a laughable use of taxpayer resources,” Cole said in an interview. “It is welfare for candidates and consultants. Give that money to worthwhile programs or put it back in the Treasury. Use it for Zika. There are an infinite number of better places to use federal money than this.”
But the fund has wide support among campaign finance reformers, who agree that the system is broken but say it warrants repair.
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) said he thinks the recent payments illustrate the need for a complete overhaul, including stricter rules for how candidates qualify for the federal funds though his proposal is stalled on Capitol Hill, with little Republican backing.
The Presidential Election Campaign Fund has been used in every election since 1976, and it has been credited over the years with boosting political underdogs such as Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan. In recent years, the fund has made payments to the campaigns of Johnson, Ralph Nader and Buddy Roemer. Stein tapped into the fund during her earlier unsuccessful Green Party run in 2012.
Obama’s decision in 2008 to opt out remains a sore point with campaign finance reformers.
The law sets strict limits on how much federal money a candidate can get in both the primaries and general election. Payments to primary candidates are based on a federal match of qualifying donations up to a maximum of about $48 million. In the general election, qualifying candidates can get about $96 million, which is now considered inadequate to run a competitive major-party campaign.
Stein was approved by the FEC in April for the matching-funds program. She had to first prove that she had financial support of at least $100,000 in at least 20 states. She submitted voluminous paperwork to the FEC that lists contributions in amounts as small as $1.
Her August report to the FEC shows that she is raising money apart from the taxpayer assistance. It lists $1.6 million in individual contributions, hardly enough to compete head-on with major-party candidates.
Her July spending report shows her campaign spending was $170,527. By August, her spending was up to $830,226.
Her campaign expenses included $406,000 to North Woods Advertising, a Minneapolis firm run by Bill Hillsman, who handled advertising for the late senator Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) and for the Mall of America.
The campaign has paid for office space in Brooklyn and Philadelphia to use for volunteer organizing. Her campaign paid for video production, signs, T-shirts and tent rentals. It also contributed funds to state-level Green Party organizations and tens of thousands of dollars to operatives to help her get onto ballots, the reports show.
As with any candidate seeking public money, demands on staff also increase. Mattera said the Stein campaign relies on a technical compliance officer to take care of the paperwork and tracking needed to get federal funding.