Not long ago, the United States had a very successful public financing system for presidential elections. Between 1976 and 1996, major presidential candidates were able to focus most of their time on talking to voters and could spend much less of it on raising campaign cash, thanks to a 1971 law that allowed millions of Americans to check a box on their annual IRS returns and earmark $3 from their taxes to go into the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. The idea was that this would ensure presidents would not be beholden to wealthy interests.
When the amount of money available to campaigns failed to keep up with the growing cost of national advertising, candidates discovered they stood a better chance if they opted-out. And while a recent law redirected a portion of those funds to health research, taxpayers might wonder where the rest of the money goes.
As of right now, the answer appears to be: Nowhere.
Under federal law, each taxpayer can choose annually whether to help fund the public financing system for presidential campaigns — at no additional cost to the taxpayer. The money goes into a fund which can be accessed (in the form of matching funds) by presidential primary candidates who meet some viability tests and agree to certain limits and (in the form of a grant) by major presidential nominees who agree to forgo all other general election fundraising. Until last year, the Democratic and Republican parties also each received millions to pay for their quadrennial nominating conventions.
But the available public funds could not keep pace with the increasing costs of running a national campaign — the outside super PACs are often more active than the actual candidates — and Congress has failed to update the system for the 21st Century. With campaigns more costly than ever to run and little chance for candidates to be competitive while unilaterally accepting restrictive limits against opponents who do not, candidates began to forgo public financing entirely.
No major-party presidential nominee has accepted the primary matching funds since Al Gore (D) in 2000 and no nominee has accepted public funding for the general election since John McCain (R) in 2008. In 2012, just three candidates — Libertarian Gary Johnson, Jill Stein of the Green Party, and Republican/Reform Party/Americans Elect candidate Buddy Roemer — participated in the system. Now, instead of evaluating candidate’s messages, the media focuses on how much money they can raise.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been a corresponding decline in the number of people opting to earmark funds for the system. The number of people checking the box to dononate in 1977 was nearly 29 percent of taxpayers. This year, it was just 5.4 percent.
A spokesman for the Federal Election Commission told ThinkProgress that not one 2016 hopeful has applied for funds from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. And, until someone does or Congress re-appropriates that money, he said it “stays in the fund.” As of the end of September, that fund holds more than $288 million — though the portion that was intended for political conventions now gets transferred to a pediatric health research fund, thanks to a 2014 bill passed in honor of a 10-year-old who died from a brain tumor.
In the past, some have proposed to eliminate the system entirely. In 2010, then House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) suggested it as an option under his unsuccessful YouCut anti-government crowdsourcing effort.
But campaign finance reform advocates say that the $3 check-off still offers an important symbolic outlet for voters to express their support for a better campaign finance system.
Common Cause Senior Policy Counsel Stephen Spaulding told ThinkProgress that the presidential public financing was a resounding success for 20 years and could be again if Congress would act to make more public funds available to candidates. “There is a way to do it and it wouldn’t be that hard. All that is to say, when people do their tax returns, they’re reminded ‘there’s that check-off box’ that can remind people that public financing is a better way to do things, empower voters, and reset priorities.”
“Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s fix the system,” he urged. “[Citizens] should check the box and show that it matters, there’s still an appetite.”