Though New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign has not exactly taken off—she polls at around 1 percent, if that—it has produced at least one decent idea: A “Democracy Dollars” program for public financing of elections, which she rolled out on Wednesday in an interview with NBC News.
Similar to a provision in the Democrats’ For the People Act, which passed the House earlier this year but has run into stiff opposition in the GOP-led Senate, Gillibrand’s plan would give voters $100 for the primary and $100 for the general for the House, Senate and presidential elections for a total of $600 per cycle, with the downballot donations being restricted to candidates in the donor’s state. In return for accepting the money, candidates would have to limit the regular, non-Democracy dollars they accept; donors would only be able to give up to $200, instead of the current $2,800 maximum.
This is where the plan falls apart. In 2008, you may recall that Barack Obama was the first major party presidential candidate to refuse the $84 million in public campaign financing because that money also came with limits on outside fundraising, and he knew he could raise more using his impressive fundraising machine. It feels incredibly quaint now that candidates ever accepted that money, let alone Republicans.
It is perfectly plausible to imagine that many candidates, especially national presidential candidates, would be able to raise much more from the existing structure than by participating in the Democracy Dollars program. A better policy would be to limit campaign donations for all candidates, whether or not they participate in the program, thus incentivizing them to do so. But that would run up against a Supreme Court that has made clear it supports the idea that money is speech and that rich people therefore are allowed much more of a voice in our democracy.
This plan also wouldn’t address the existence of other avenues of big money spending, such as super PACs, which were made possible after two Supreme Court decisions in 2010. In 2016, almost 20 percent of the money raised for Hillary Clinton’s billion-dollar election effort went to super PACs. It’s perfectly plausible that big donors would just reroute their money to super PACs or dark money organizations.
A similar program already exists in Seattle, where voters receive $100 in “democracy vouchers” that they can donate to a candidate of their choice. But in the first elections after the program was introduced, only 3.3 percent of voters actually participated. This doesn’t mean a program like this could never work federally; it just means it would need to be highly publicized for candidates to have a chance of raising more money from Democracy Dollars than from outside money.
Our campaign finance system is fucked beyond measure; it will take a plan of a bigger scale to address this. But on the bright side, at least some major Democratic candidates not named Bernie Sanders are proposing public financing.