You already hate tax season, and as you move wearily through the cold calculations of the 1040 form, you come across a familiar checkbox. It’s the one that requests permission to send $3 to the “presidential election campaign,” delivering cash to a bunch of politicians that you’re sure are awash in money anyway. “What’s the point?” you might ask yourself. To fund more polarizing and negative campaign ads? You happily refuse to check the box. By doing so, you joined 94 percent of Americans who also declined to make that checkmark. The share of tax forms with a checked box has been declining steadily for decades.
That widespread sentiment is one of the principal reasons why the public funding of presidential campaigns, long a goal of campaign finance reform activists, is dying. Because the checkoff has provided a reduced stream of money, public financing is no longer an attractive option for the major party candidates, who now prefer to let private citizens with money pay for their campaigns.
When you agree to the $3 tax checkoff, it funds the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), a common pool of money that matches the fundraising of eligible presidential candidates in primary and general elections, for those who choose to take it. The $3 does not come out of your taxes; it’s just $3 less the government receives in tax revenue.