Why Public Financing?
In most of the United States today, campaigns are privately financed. That means candidates must raise money from donors however they can in order to pay for campaign advertising, staff, and getting the candidate's message out to voters. If no one knows who you are or why you're running, you can't win an election.
That creates a problem, though. People only donate to candidates they support; if someone has more money to donate, they have more power to pick which candidates get heard than someone with less money. And politicians know that, so they have to prioritize the interests of the people with money or they won't be able to run an effective campaign.
John wants to run for office. He's a good person who cares about his community, but it costs $10,000 to send one mass mailing to voters. He needs to raise that money somehow.
He could talk to 10 people and convince each of them to donate $1000 to his campaign. Not everyone can afford $1000, though. His other option is to talk to 1000 people who can give only $10 each. What can John do?
John takes private money
It's far more efficient to talk to 10 people with $1000 each, so he does that and raises enough money to send out his mailers.
While talking to them, though, some of those donors mention, "Hey, I've got this building permit that the city council is debating. It would be really nice if it got approved."
John's no dummy. He knows full well that if he doesn't get that building permit approved, he can't count on a donation from those donors next time he runs for office. This means that John might prioritize the needs of the few over the needs of the many.
Amy also wants to run for the same office as John. Amy's also a good person and cares for her community. She wants to be able to represent everyone, though, not just those who have thousands to donate to her campaign. She tries to talk to everyone but most can give just $10 each.
Unfortunately, because she spends so long on fundraising, she raises only $2000 by the time John has sent out two mass mailings. Come election day, voters go to the polls without ever hearing Amy's name.
Cynthia is thinking about running for the same office as John and Amy because she also cares about her community. She knows how expensive a campaign is, though. She knows she wouldn't be able to raise enough money to run just by talking to people with $10 to spare, but she's not willing to spend all her time talking to just the big donors. She wants to represent the average person in the community, not just those with private business interests.
In the end, Cynthia doesn't even run. She knows it would be a waste of time, because she could never raise enough money to get her name out.
Private campaign finance perpetuates the economic divide already present in society. Those with money, or connections to wealth, have already cleared a major barrier when considering running for office. Those that don't have those connections simply cannot afford to run.
Furthermore, often big donors are the first to get meetings with their elected officials and the last to leave the room—leaving everyone else without a seat at the table.
But what if there were another way?
Public financing gives political power back to the people by opening the door for everyday citizens to run for local office and amplifying the voices of ordinary people. With public financing, your representatives are no longer in the pocket of special interest groups and big money. Public financing removes the barrier to running for office by leveling the playing field for those who feel they can make an impact but may have been deterred by the high cost of local campaigns.
Through this system, candidates spend more time listening to their constituents and prioritizing their issues because they rely on small individual donations rather than a few wealthy donors. Public financing has also been shown to increase voter engagement by promoting individual investment in local elections.
Now Amy and Cynthia can run
Amy and Cynthia participate in the program and spend their time talking to regular voters, because their donations are just as valuable as those of large donors. They are able to raise enough money for the campaign and hear about the issues their constituents care about. Now on Election Day, voters have three good candidates to choose from instead of just one.
What about John? Maybe he opts in to public financing as well, because he doesn't like being beholden to a small number of rich donors. Or maybe he decides it's easier to just keep doing what he's doing; but then voters are skeptical of where his allegiances lie.
Would people vote against John if he doesn't opt-in to public financing? That's up to the voters.