On Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation into law that frees up state and local governments to provide for the public funding of elections.
Public financing refers to using funds from government entities to finance campaign costs. In the presidential arena, if a candidate agrees to certain limits, they can have access to these funds, a feat rendered mostly obsolete with the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC case that opened up a loophole for unlimited Super Pac funding.
The legislation passed the California legislature with a majority of over 2/3, overturning a 1988 ballot initiative that banned the state from spending public funds on elections. Voluntary funds are still off limits, however, as state and local governments are bound by judicial rulings limiting such actions.
Presidential campaigns tend to be high profile, garnering media attention and in turn the attention of wealthy financers. State and local elections do not have hat benefit most of the time, making incumbency rates exorbitant and making it almost impossible for a new challenger to get support for his or her campaign. Incumbents benefit from having their name already out there, and as a result have an easier time attracting financers.
The idea behind public funds is that everyone has to agree to the same limits, thus creating a level playing field. While Presidential campaigns can easily finance well above the national limits, in most cases limits imposed by state and local governments would be difficult to reach relying solely on private financers. It makes public funds look like a good deal, and if everyone is taking that deal, then at least from a financial standpoint everyone is even.
Before the new law was instated, only six cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, were allowed to enact public financing programs for upcoming elections. The state government, as well as most local ones, were prohibited from doing so.
“California’s leaders are hearing from voters who are fed up with playing second fiddle to wealthy special interests,” Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said in a statement.
“This bill gives Californians new options to amplify the voices of everyday voters in election campaigns.”
Californians cannot necessarily compete with the interests of wealthy donors. With public funding, the voice of the wealthy will not be heard as loudly, giving rise to candidates that best support the interests of the less well-off majority. Monetary donations to campaigns have been recognized by the supreme court as protected free speech, but the speech of those who can afford to have their opinions heard should not sway the course of an election away from the voices of those who will most benefit or suffer as a result.