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The highs and lows of public funding

Public financing of election campaigns, a process in which federal campaign funds are distributed to qualified candidates, was proposed by Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago as a way to combat large private donations to candidates. Its intention was to prevent any single donor from having a large influence on an election.

Connecticut has laws on public funding of state political campaigns and is one of only five states that allows public funding for the campaigns of both governor and state legislative offices.  The Clean Elections Program of 2005 requires candidates to collect small donations from many individuals to demonstrate public support in order to qualify for state funding. The law aims to create a fair playing field for all candidates in an election and it has made strides toward that goal by equalizing spending for each candidate to further reduce the advantages that wealthy campaigns may have.

But there are failings to this system. For example, if a political candidate runs unopposed in a Connecticut election, the system still provides public grants, though reduced, to their campaigns.  Likewise, there is no limit on the amount of money a state party committee can contribute to a candidate for governor.

An example of one of these flaws arose during Governor Malloy’s re-election campaign in 2014. Malloy is accused of receiving illegal funding from the Connecticut Democratic party through state contractors. The investigation is ongoing, but has already unearthed a troubling conflict between state and federal campaign finance law; Connecticut doesn’t allow state contractors to donate to state campaigns, but federal law can allow donations from these contractors for “get-out-the-vote” campaigns in federal election years when state elections are also being held.

The state Elections Enforcement Commission is investigating whether the contractors donated to a party’s federal account with funds that were then allocated to local campaigns in that specific election year. This is one of the loopholes in the Connecticut and federal public funding systems that allows candidates to create unfair finance advantages for themselves.

Public financing works but is not perfect. There are loopholes and some taxpayers may find their money paying for a campaign that they would not otherwise support.  Connecticut needs smarter regulations for the state’s public financing program to prevent unfair advantages for candidates with more affluent supporters. The Clean Elections Program is a good start to  finance political campaigns, but state lawmakers must tweak it to ensure fairness and equality in elections.


Cady Stanton is an intern at the Office of the Community Lawyer. She is a graduate of The Hotchkiss School and a freshman at Georgetown University.

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