Presidential Campaign Fund Plummets

Twenty years since public financing of presidential campaigns began, taxpayer contributions to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund are at their lowest level since the program’s first year. Taxpayers just aren’t checking the box on their tax forms–even though it doesn’t cost them a dime. Of the 16.1 million individuals and couples who filed federal income tax returns in 1994, only 14.5 percent designated $3 of their taxes to support the election fund, according to the Internal Revenue Service. In 1990 almost 20 percent of taxpayers opted to earmark one dollar to the fund. Participation has been dropping ever since 28.7 percent of taxpayers checked the box in 1981.

Giving dropped from 29% in 1981 to 14% in 1994.

Why the steady decline?

“You have a whole new generation of taxpayers who perhaps might not be familiar with the reasons why the checkoff was put into place,” explained Sharon Snyder, spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission, a federal campaign monitoring agency which partially administers the fund.

The reasons had to do with post-Watergate-era thinking that if candidates could tap into public money they would be less dependent on wealthy individual contributors.

Has the public lost interest in public financing?

Concerned about dwindling participation, the FEC several years ago ran a series of television ads reminding people that checking the box does not increase a person’s taxes, which is, of course, what the explanation on the tax form itself says. The ads didn’t have much of an effect.

In 1994, federal officials increased from $1 to $3 the amount of money taxpayers could earmark for the fund. The hike was an attempt to bolster the fund, which in 1992 almost did not have enough to provide matching funds to presidential candidates during the long primary season.

The first candidates to tap into the fund–President Gerald R. Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter–each collected $21.8 million to spend on their 1976 fall campaigns. This year, the major party candidates will each collect about $61.8 million.

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The fund also provides millions of dollars during the primaries to candidates hoping to capture their party’s nomination. But to qualify for the matching funds, they must raise at least $5,000 in 20 states in amounts of no more than $250 from any one person. In exchange for the matching funds candidates agree to adhere to limits on how much they may spend on their campaign.

Three federal departments monitor the Presidential Campaign Fund: the Internal Revenue Service, which determines how much money taxpayers have earmarked for the fund; the Treasury Department, which fills the fund’s coffers with the amount of money designated by taxpayers; and the FEC, which determines who is eligible to receive assistance from the fund and acts as a watchdog.