Skip to main content

Updating the Presidential Public Financing System is Key to Removing Big Money from Politics

Blog / Last Updated:

For 25 years the presidential public financing system, which has put value on small donors in our electoral process, has served the nation well. During this period all but a few presidential candidates participated in the system, including every President elected from 1976 to 2000. But the presidential system is broken today. It needs to be repaired and updated to deal with the new world of campaign finance, which, unfortunately, includes Super PACs and other groups that are spending unlimited funds to influence an election, often in secret. 

For years, candidates running for President could receive millions of dollars in matching funds as long as they met certain qualifications, including agreeing to spending limits, keeping records of expenses and supplying proper evidence of expenses to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and paying any penalties imposed by the FEC. Candidates must also be able to raise at least $5,000 in donations from 20 states across the country.

The program is overseen by the Federal Election Commission and any matching funds are withdrawn from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. The fund is financed through $3 donations that taxpayers make when filing their taxes every year. The $3 tax check-off box is one of the final questions asked when taxpayers file their yearly 1040 federal income tax forms. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was created following the Watergate scandal. When first implemented, nearly 30 percent of taxpayers donated to the Fund, but participation has fallen with just 6 percent of taxpayers donating in 2013.

Unfortunately, Congress failed to modernize the system so that it would keep up with inflation. Not only did the value of the money from the check-off decline, but, perhaps more importantly, the amounts candidates could receive declined in value. So candidates have been stopping their use of the program. In recent elections, candidates have chosen to forgo using the program. The first candidate to raise private funds for the general election was then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008. In the 2016 primary election cycle, Martin O’Malley was the only presidential candidate to file for matching funds.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, and the resulting boom of independent expenditures, dark money and Super PACs, candidates discovered that they themselves (or their friends), could raise and spend more money than if they accepted public funding. Thus began the domination of big money from a select few donors in our elections. As a result, the eventual presidential nominees are expected to spend over $1 billion each this election cycle.

The influence of money in elections undermines the political equality that is based on every citizen’s equal voice in the voting booth. It is distorting election debates and our election system. And it is reinforcing the belief that our government is subject to undue influence and corruption.

A new bill, S. 1176, the EMPOWER Act of 2015, addresses this crisis by providing presidential candidates a path toward equitable competition based on small donations. The bill provides a six-to-one match for contributions up to $250, lowers contribution limits for participating candidates and allows increased coordinated spending by political parties with funds raised from small donors. To ensure that a candidate can respond to any unlimited spending from outside sources, the legislation does not have a spending limit for participating candidates. The League supports this legislation and is encouraging Senators to cosponsor the legislation.

Fixing the public financing system in our country is just one of the ways that the League is working to get big money out of politics. The League is taking a multi-pronged approach. In addition to supporting federal legislation to revamp the presidential public financing system, we are also supporting legislation to set up a new congressional public financing system and state and local Leagues across the country have had success with implementing laws in their own communities. The League also continues to push for passage of the DISCLOSE Act and ending under-the-table coordination between Super PACs and candidates.

As the League advocates for these changes, our greatest weapon to combat the influence of money in politics is to grow the vote. Voting is the most powerful form of expression that a single citizen has. It’s how we take the power from the few and put it back in the hands of the many – each voter who shows up at the polls diminishes the influence of every dollar spent trying to swing an election. When citizens vote, politicians have to listen. In fact, the only thing that can stop the flood of money is a flood of voters.

Register to vote or check your voter registration status with

Donate to support our work

to empower voters and defend democracy.