What Happened to the $288 Million the Public Donated to Presidential Campaigns that Candidates Don’t Want?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

It’s one of the first boxes you see on a tax form. Before you even tell the Internal Revenue Service whether you’re married, you’re asked whether you want to reserve $3 to fund presidential campaigns, with the reminder that checking the box will not change your tax or refund.


But in this age of multi-million-dollar super PACs, where does that money go? None of the major party candidates took the funding in 2012 and none appear to be interested this year. The last candidate to accept public funding in a general election was Republican John McCain in 2008, according to ThinkProgress. Candidates since then have figured out that they are usually able to raise far more money on their own.


Millions still check the box, however, with 5.4% of taxpayers doing so on their 2014 returns. That’s a big drop from the 29% of taxpayers who did so in 1977. Nonetheless, such donations have amounted to about $288 million in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.


Given that candidates have long been ignoring the fund, their roving eyes targeting greener and richer pastures elsewhere, what has become of all those millions? Not much. Mostly it’s just sitting there. And there it will stay until a candidate requests federal funding or Congress moves the money somewhere else. Some of the funds, which had been earmarked for funding political conventions, have already been moved into pediatric health research.


The fund was created as the result of a federal law passed in 1971, its purpose being to reduce the likelihood of presidents being beholden to wealthy special interests. It’s a noble purpose that campaign finance reform groups still embrace. Consequently, they want to keep the checkoff in the hope that more public funding will be made available to candidates and more will choose to go that route.


“There is a way to do it and it wouldn’t be that hard,” Common Cause senior policy counsel Stephen Spaulding told ThinkProgress. “All that is to say, when people do their tax returns, they’re reminded ‘there’s that check-off box’ that can remind people that public financing is a better way to do things, empower voters, and reset priorities.


“Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s fix the system,” Spaulding said. “[Citizens] should check the box and show that it matters, there’s still an appetite.”

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

The $288 Million in Campaign Funds That Candidates Aren’t Using (by Josh Israel, ThinkProgress)

Presidential Election Campaign Fund Tax Check-Off Chart (Federal Election Commission)

The $3 Tax Checkoff (Federal Election Commission)

So Far in the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Half of Donation Dollars have come from just 400 Families (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

FEC Ruling on Presidential Convention Contributions Sidesteps Party Donation Limits (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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