Big money and secret money in our election campaigns undermines democracy. They can prevent voters from knowing who, with what interests, is trying to influence their votes. They can also unduly influence the decisions of our elected officials and lead to outright corruption. (See my previous posts here and here for more detail.)

There are two main strategies for blunting the impact of big money and secret money in our elections:

  • Disclosure of campaign contributions and spending in a complete and timely manner, and
  • Matching of voters’ small campaign contributions with public funding, coupled with strict limits on who can contribute and how much can be contributed.

Both of these strategies have been reviewed and approved by the current Supreme Court.

Three-quarters of Americans, including three-quarters of those in each political party, support disclosure of campaign spending. A number of states, including California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montana have strengthened disclosure requirements in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. There are proposals in Congress to enhance disclosure for federal campaigns.

California requires any group spending more than $50,000 in a year on political activities to disclose all donors giving over $1,000. In addition, it requires that political advertisements include the names of top funders. The success of these measures is reflected in the remarkably small increase in secret (aka dark) money in California elections. [1] In Montana, a bipartisan coalition enacted strong transparency laws for campaign spending after large amounts of out-of-state dark money were spent in their elections.

A Brennan Center report [2] identifies key provisions of an effective state campaign spending disclosure law:

  • Require disclosure of all donors by all groups that spend any significant amount of money in campaigns;
  • Require disclosure by organizations that provide substantial funding to groups making significant campaign expenditures;
  • Require disclosure for all political advertising spending in a specified window before an election (e.g., a few months to a year), including issue ads (that don’t explicitly advocate for a vote for or against a candidate);
  • Require up-to-date disclosure frequently, including just before an election and in advertisements themselves;
  • Require disclosure of the individual(s) controlling any group making significant campaign expenditures; and
  • Make penalties for violations substantial but proportional to the severity of the violation.

Disclosure helps voters know who is trying to influence their votes and the election, and lets them take into account the interests of the spenders, although it does not directly affect the funding of campaigns.

Matching voters’ small campaign contributions with public funding makes small contributions more valuable to candidates. Given that the Supreme Court’s decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon) do not allow laws limiting campaign contributions outright, this alternative amplifies the voices and influence of small donors. It can also require candidates to voluntarily limit campaign spending and the size of contributions in exchange for the public matching funds.

New York City has had a campaign financing system in place since 1988 that matches small donations with public funding. Currently, it offers a six-to-one match on donations up to $175 by city residents. An ordinary citizens making a donation of $50 or $100 now has the clout of a much larger contribution – $350 or $700, respectively – due to matching public funds. As a result, more people are donating, because their small contributions and voices are amplified. And this leads to higher voter turnout on Election Day. [3]

Candidates’ participation in this contribution matching system is voluntary. In exchange for the public matching funds, candidates agree to abide by limits on overall spending and the size of individual contributions. These limits vary with the office being sought, from Mayor to City Council. In 2013, 92% of NYC’s candidates participated in the public matching funds system. For the candidates who did participate, 61% of their funding came from small donors. Conversely, for the candidates who did not participate, 53% of their funding came from large donors of $1,000 or more. [4]

The system has changed candidates’ attitudes and approach to the voting public. It has muted the importance of large contributions. It has motivated more citizens to run for office and made races more competitive. Candidates spend less time fundraising and can, therefore, be more engaged with and responsive to their constituents.

The states of Maine, Connecticut, and Arizona have similar contribution matching systems in place. Washington, D.C., is considering implementing such a system. There are proposals in Congress that would create a similar system for our national elections.

I encourage you to contact your elected officials and ask them to take action now to blunt the impact of big money and secret money in our elections. Strengthening disclosure of the sources of funding for campaign spending is one step to take. Another is to enact a system for matching voters’ small contributions to candidates with public funding. Both of these would make our elections more democratic and can be done now within the constraints of the Supreme Court’s rulings.

[1]       Lee, C., & Norden, L., 6/25/16, “The secret power behind local elections,” The New York Times

[2]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, “Secret spending in the states,” The Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (

[3]       Migally, A., & Liss, S., 2010, “Small donor matching funds: The NYC election experience,” The Brennan Center for Justice (

[4]       McElwee, S., 6/23/16, “D.C.’s white donor class: Outsized influence in a diverse city,” Demos (


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