The smooth execution of elections is a cornerstone of our democracy, yet elections in the United States are chronically—and, in some cases, hazardously—underfunded. The majority of existing funding comes from state and local sources, with only intermittent, discretionary federal appropriations.
Inadequate funding leads to antiquated technology and equipment, understaffed election offices, and overworked officials. The 2020 election exposed this reality when election officials had to bootstrap a contentious election amid a pandemic. Private funders stepped in to fund aspects of the voting process that should be resourced by the government.
Recent federal appropriations for election security in the fiscal year 2018, FY2020, FY2022, and through the CARES Act in 2020 have incentivized states to make investments in their elections processes; however, relying on one-off discretionary “money drops” of varying amounts is an inefficient and inadequate way to provide funding when election officials need consistency and predictability. Foreign cybersecurity threats in the 2016 election and unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the 2020 election have resulted in renewed public attention to the intricacies of the U.S. election system. The American public demands election security and accessibility. This cannot happen without proper funding. Regular, continuous federal funding for elections would allow state and local governments to budget for the short, medium, and long term.
With so many competing priorities for the annual budgeting process, creating a reliable federal funding source for elections requires a separate, dedicated approach. Fortunately, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF) provides an existing mechanism to do just that.
Recommendation: Fund Elections through the PECF, Outside of the Annual Discretionary Appropriations Process
Right now, over $400 million sits unspent in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF). Each year, when tax filers complete their tax return filing, they can check a box to direct $3.00 of their tax liability to a fund designated for financing presidential campaigns; for joint filers, the amount doubles to $6.00. Yet no Democratic or Republican presidential nominee has accessed funds from the account since 2008.
The PECF’s original purpose was to support presidential election campaigns with public financing. However, it should be reimagined as a dedicated funding source for block grants to state and local election officials; this account, resourced by interested American taxpayers and wholly separate from the discretionary budget process, would revitalize election administration in this country and display a commitment from the federal government to cover its role in the state and local voting process. This approach honors the original spirit of the PECF by repurposing the funds to areas of high concern for the public involving our democracy.
What Is the Presidential Election Campaign Fund?
The existing PECF is the presidential public funding program. Presidential candidates are eligible to receive taxpayer-provided funds to pay for the qualified expenses of their political campaigns in primary and general elections. In return, candidates must limit their spending during the campaign in accordance with PECF guidelines (see Appendix A).
The PECF was created in 1974, following the Watergate scandal, to fund the party nominees’ primary and general election campaigns, thereby reducing the corrupting influences of money in politics and bolstering trust in the political system. (See Appendix A for the rules on primary matching funds and general election funds.) Given the concern about the influence of money in politics at the time, the fund collected nearly $24 million in its first year. This is equivalent to approximately $118 million in 2022 dollars.
The use of public financing has lost momentum as candidates opt for other strategies that allow them to raise and spend astronomical amounts of money on their campaigns. The PECF’s accompanying limitations on spending put candidates who access the funds at a severe disadvantage against candidates who do not accept the funds and who spend without limitation. In 2016, for example, the major party candidates spent a combined $2.4 billion. This figure far exceeds the $400 million sitting in the PECF.
There appears to be little political will or support to raise the spending limits imposed on candidates for accessing the PECF to a level that entices candidates to consider the option going forward. That is why we believe reallocating the use of funds in a way that tangibly improves the voting experience is a better plan moving forward.
There have been other attempts at redirecting this fund. Congress reallocated part of the PECF in 2014 when it voted to shift funding to pediatric research that would have been allocated to financing political nominating conventions. In 2019, one member of Congress proposed diverting the $3 tax filers’ checkoff to a trust fund dedicated to building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. While the bill to reallocate the PECF toward the construction of a border wall did not pass, Congress has demonstrated openness to reallocating the fund.
Today, taxpayers are given the option to allocate $3 of their taxes to the PECF (or $6 if they file jointly), but before 1993, taxpayers were given the option to donate $1 to the fund (or $2 for taxpayers filing jointly). The share of tax filers who check the box, however, has declined from 28% in 1976 to just over 3% in 2021. The decline suggests a growing disinterest in public campaign finance among the American public. Despite the decline, as of March 31, 2022, there is still over $412 million in the fund.
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