During the 1907 State of the Union Address, President Theodore Roosevelt stated “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” Public financing of elections, he believed, would ensure that no particular donor has an outsized influence on the outcome of any election, and would “work a substantial improvement in our system of conducting a campaign.”
Public financing of campaigns remains the least-used method of regulating money in elections, partly due to the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo. In that decision, the Court struck down a provision of the Federal Election Commission mandating public financing for presidential elections. States cannot require candidates to use public financing programs, and the financial advantages of private fundraising frequently prompt candidates to opt out of public financing programs, which often include expenditure limits for participants. Candidates who opt not to use public funds can solicit contributions from individuals, PACs, unions, parties, and corporations, without having to abide by state expenditure limits.
For states that elect to provide a public financing options, money is available for either individual candidates or political parties. This page provides information on both options, with examples of how the public financing option influenced a campaign.
Public Financing for Candidates
Today, 14 states provide some form of public financing option for campaigns. Each of these plans require the candidate to accept public money for his or her campaign in exchange for a promise to limit both how much the candidate spends on the election and how much they receive in donations from any one group or individual. This chart contains additional details on these 14 states.
These options are frequently limited, applying only to certain types of candidates.
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The two main types of programs states offer for public financing of elections are the clean elections programs offered in states such as Maine and Arizona, and programs that provide a candidate with matching funds for each qualifying contribution they receive. The “clean election states” offer full funding for the campaign, and the matching funds programs provide a candidate with a portion of the funds needed to run the campaign.
Clean Elections Programs
In the clean elections programs offered only in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, candidates are encouraged to collect small contributions (no more than $5) from a number of individuals (depending on the position sought) to demonstrate that he or she has enough public support to warrant public funding of his or her campaign. In return, the commission established for the program gives the candidate a sum of money equal to the expenditure limit set for the election. New Mexico offers a similar program, but only for judicial candidates.
As an example of a clean elections program, a candidate for state office in Arizona must raise $5 contributions from at least 200 people in order to qualify for the program. In return, the state provides the candidate with public money in an amount equal to the expenditure limit. In the 2014 election, the expenditure limit for gubernatorial candidates was $1,130,424, and the limit for legislative positions was $22,880.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who declined participation in the clean elections program, raised $2.4 million for his 2014 campaign, more than double the amount authorized for the program’s participants.
The program is funded through a 10 percent surcharge on all civil penalties and criminal fees, civil penalties paid by the candidates, and the qualifying contributions the candidate raised.
Matching Funds Programs
The other type of public financing program, offered in states such as Florida and Hawaii, provide matching funds for candidates up to a certain amount. In Hawaii, candidates are encouraged to limit their contributions and expenditures to an amount set by the legislature. For the 2014 election, the expenditure limit for the general election was $1,597,208. The candidate who participates in the matching funds program is eligible to receive 10 percent of this limit in public funds, or $159,721. A candidate must first receive $100,000 in qualifying contributions during the primary season for the state to provide a matching $100,000 during the general election. The candidate can then raise an additional $59,721 in qualifying contributions that the state will match, for a total of $319,442. The candidate can then raise additional money from other sources, like PACs, parties, or individuals, to reach the expenditure limit of $1,597,208.
For example, Hawaii governor David Ige received $105,164.73 in public funds for his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, and spent the maximum of $1,597,208 during the general election. His challenger, Duke Aiona, who elected to not participate in the public financing program, spent $1,532,306.65 on his unsuccessful election. Mr. Aiona, like all candidates, had to comply with the state’s contribution limits, but did not have to worry about collecting the smaller qualifying contributions from many different sources.
The program is funded through a tax return checkoff, whereby citizens choose whether they want to contribute three dollars from their tax burden to the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund.
The public financing method of regulating money in elections has been the subject of several U.S. Supreme Court cases. To see how judicial decisions impact public financing, go to NCSL's web page on the effect of the courts on campaign finance.
The map below shows the states that have a public financing system in place, and which kind is available.
Public Financing for Parties
Some states provide public monies for political parties, to help fund conventions and other party activities such as voter registration drives. Currently, Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina*, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Utah* allow taxpayers to “check-off” a box on their return indicating a desire to contribute to the state’s political parties. The amounts range from $1 to $25.
Florida (Fla. Stat. 99.103) remits to political parties most of the candidate filing fees that are collected from that party, with 15 percent reserved for the general fund.
Iowa statute I.C.A. § 68A.601 provides an example of a tax check-off plan for political parties, whereby any person whose tax liability for the year is $1.50 or more can send $1.50 to the Iowa election campaign fund when they submit their tax return.
*The House of Representatives in North Carolina (HB 589) and Utah (HB 50) have passed bills eliminating the checkoff provision. These bills have not yet been passed by the Senates. Kentucky recently eliminated a similar program.
About This Project
The content for this webpage was created by Brian Cruikshank from William and Mary Law School, in coordination with NCSL's staff.
If you don't find the information you need, please contact our elections team at 303-364-7700 or firstname.lastname@example.org. NCSL staff can do specialized searches for legislators and legislative staff.