University of Wisconsin–Madison

Election Finance

What's the Problem & How are Progressives Addressing It

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), overturning long-standing restrictions on political fundraising and spending, has transformed the political landscape. Citizens United opened up the floodgates by granting corporations and other private interests unlimited spending power in political elections through Super PACs. While the public debate on election finance is mainly focused on the Federal and State levels, Citizens United also brought an unprecedented influx of money into local elections and ballot initiatives.

Ensuring elected officials represent the interests of the many and not just the wealthy and powerful requires reducing the power of big money and empowering small donors. In recent years, municipalities and counties across the nation have taken active steps to achieve this goal through various reforms, regulations and initiatives designed to increase transparency and level the playing field of local political elections.

Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms

Local reforms of election finance rules focus on three broad issues: transparency, public finance, and limiting the flow of big money into politics. Practical steps taken to achieve these goals include increased donor disclosure requirements, matching contributions with public finance, and placing caps on funding and other restrictions on political contributions from businesses and powerful private interests.

The National Institute on Money in Politics issued a report on the best practices for disclosure of local candidates’ campaign finance data. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice discusses public campaign financing in New York City, considered one of the most advanced systems in the nation even as it is undermined by corporate interests.

Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them

ProGov21 has a wealth of resources for local governments looking to enact election finance policies. For example, a 1997 ordinance from Ramsey County, MN, which requires candidates to start filing campaign finance reports within 14 days of receiving donations or reimbursements in excess of $750, illustrates one way of increasing transparency through disclosure requirements. A 2004 ordinance from Alachua County, FL, which requires candidates for county offices to disclose donators’ names and size of donations during any election cycle for any donation over a specified size.

New York City’s matching funds mechanism, led by the New York City Campaign Finance Board – established through a city referendum in 1988 – provides matching funds to local candidates. Local Law 34 (2007) expanded and strengthened the city’s landmark Campaign Finance Act.

The Open & Accountable Elections Program in Portland, OR, is modeled after NYC’s  Campaign Finance Program. The program, set to begin in 2020, will match every $50 donated to eligible candidates at a 6:1 ratio.

Taking it to the Next Level

Going beyond matching funding mechanisms, Seattle pioneered a unique “democracy vouchers” program that gives each registered voter four $25 vouchers to contribute to any eligible candidates standing for election. The program, the first of its kind in the country, was implemented in the municipal elections of 2017.  Austin, Texas is currently considering similar initiatives.

Large political contributions from businesses competing for government contracts raise reasonable concerns regarding the actual purpose of the donation. One possible answer could be a Pay-to-Play ordinance that prohibits an entity from receiving government contacts if its contributions to political campaigns exceed a certain limit.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations


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