Public Financing

By Lance Chilton

Probably most of us hate the result of the Citizens United case – the 2010 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations the First Amendment right of free speech.  It had the effect of allowing business entities the right to make contributions in any amount to political campaigns, and upset the balance in campaign financing.  As then-President Obama said at the time, the decision “gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington”.

While a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision is a distant possibility, public financing of elections is a more likely alternative for now.  I spoke recently with Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson and Deputy City Clerk, Miriam Diemer about the use of public financing in Albuquerque city elections, specifically for the upcoming November city elections.

As of this writing, four candidates for mayor and nine candidates for city council seats 5, 7, and 9 have filed their intent to use public financing for their expenses campaigning for those offices.  Council seats 1 and 3 are also up for the election, but no candidates have yet filed for election, and only one candidate for any of these races has filed to run a privately-financed campaign.  Mr. Watson anticipates that more candidates will file for election by the deadlines in June, July and August (these depend on whether a candidate is running for mayor or for City Council, and whether s/he is filing to be publicly or privately financed).

All candidates wishing to be on the ballot must submit signatures of voters, the number depending on the position they seek.  In addition, those running with public financing must submit at least a defined number of $5 contributions – this again depends on the position sought; for mayor, the number is 3779.  Ms. Diemer and Mr. Watson told me that these contributions are actually made to the city’s public-financing fund. If a candidate has met the minimum, then the city, using funds set aside for the purpose, makes up the difference up to a set limit determined by the number of registered voters in the city (for the mayor’s race) or in each Council district. The candidates who qualify for public financing by meeting the threshold of the minimum number of qualifying contributions will receive a distribution from the city based on the number of registered voters in the district they are running for, or in the case of the Mayor, the number of voters in the City of Albuquerque. 

Public financing methods vary across the country – Seattle, for instance sends out three $25 vouchers to registered voters to be contributed to candidates in local elections.  Other jurisdictions match private donations at a set rate.  Albuquerque’s system is grant based – a pre-determined amount (for example, $660,000 for mayoral candidates minus any seed money the candidate collected is given to all candidates who qualify through the $5 contribution route.  The money comes from a small annual allotment from the city’s general fund.  A new provision in New Mexico law (see 2021 SB 160, introduced by Senators Duhigg and Wirth) specifies a hybrid model for judicial candidates in the state.

For those of you, like me, who receive dozens of requests daily from Democrats running for offices (in 2022 or beyond!) across the country, you’ll know that candidates for Congress are trying to raise funds for their next election the moment they’ve been elected or decided to run.  Public financing is a way to avoid this overweening focus on fund-raising.  This method’s advantages also include reducing the influence of big donors and enabling candidates for office who don’t have strong connections with those big donors (and corporations with “First Amendment rights” according to Citizens United!) to have a chance in an election.

According to CNN, “The projected price tag of the 2012 U.S. election ([$6 billion just for the Presidential Election]) dwarf[ed] that of other nations, but corruption monitors from Transparency International (TI) say it’s not just how much will be spent but where the money is coming from that threatens the integrity of politics around the world.”  The amounts “required” have steadily risen since this was written; public financing is a way to make the situation a little better.