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August 22, 2019

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Letter from Washington:

Public financing of presidential campaigns becomes divisive

You know that little box at the top of your tax form, the one that invites you to “check here” to donate $3 toward a presidential campaign fund? The one no one ever checks anyway?*

(*Results of an informal poll of people I know. It’s also a possibility I know a disproportionate number of ungenerous scrooges.)

That too is turning into a partisan wedge issue in Washington, D.C.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted to do away with the box and shutter the Election Assistance Commission that handles the funds. Republican backers (no Democrats voted for the legislation) called it an effort to save money by eliminating a “bloated federal agency” that “has long outlived its purpose.”

Sen. Harry Reid pre-emptively declared the bill dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate: Getting rid of the little $3 box, he explained, is really an act of voter suppression.

“Instead of making it so it’s easier for people to vote, they want to do everything they can to make it harder for people to vote,” Reid said of the Republican Party, complaining of efforts in certain states, including Nevada, to eliminate same-day registration at the polls. “They want as few people to vote as possible.”

The $3 box and the commission that manages the donated money have their origins in presidential election scandals. The $3 box — a $1 box until 1993 — was born in 1976, but was a product of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act, which sought to institute election reforms in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

The act sets rules for disclosing contributions, imposes limits on those contributions and established public financing of presidential campaigns.

The Election Assistance Commission came along later, in 2002, following the 2000 election debacle that left the outcome of the George Bush-Al Gore presidential race undecided for weeks.

The “Help America Vote Act” that followed established the commission not just to police and distribute public financing, but also to give out grants to states and counties to help them update their voting systems and educate the public about voting.

That’s the function Reid’s thinking of when he objects to the dismantling of the commission — and these days, it’s the central function of the agency.

Public funding of presidential campaigns was on the decline, but is now a relic: Not a single candidate in the 2012 election cycle has asked the government for the matching funds they’re entitled to in exchange for complying with strict spending limits.

It’s a trend that began with Barack Obama in 2008. He was the first presidential candidate to completely turn down public financing, and you only need to look at his fundraising accounts to understand why: He raised nearly $750 million last election cycle, and is expected to raise about $1 billion for his 2012 campaign.

He wouldn’t have as much campaign money at his disposal if he accepted public funds.

Because times have changed, sponsors of the bill argued, it would be better to transfer all that voter-related work to the Federal Election Commission, and put the money the Election Assistance Commission is sitting on — about $200 million — toward deficit reduction.

But even the president who started this trend away from publicly financed elections says it’s not a direction the country should force itself to continue.

“The bill would force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues,” the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget wrote in a statement.

Translation: that little box isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Not that that means you’re going to start checking it.

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