Matthew King of suburban Tacoma, Washington, is a Democrat who believes the average American should donate to presidential candidates to thwart big money’s influence. Though he is looking for work, he feels so strongly about the issues that he makes small monthly contributions to Democratic candidates and causes. “It’s democracy in action,” King says, describing his hopes for a president who will combine leftist ideals with strong Christian values. “Right now, money is our voice in politics.” Last fall, King, who is in his late 30s, was working at a local Taco Bell; he charged $20 to his credit card to support a presidential candidate, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. King did not know it at the time, but his donation would help O’Malley’s campaign qualify for more than $1 million in matching funds thanks to a cumbersome bureaucratic process: a relic known as the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. O’Malley was the only one of 23 initial primary contenders in 2016 to seek public funds for his campaign. Only three candidates are still in the race, but more than $300 million remains in the fund—and no one wants to touch it.
In a presidential campaign awash in money, with anticipated spending of up to $10 billion this election year, the fund is a quaint throwback to an idealistic time, before Supreme Court decisions unleashed secretive outside-spending practices and before wealthy individuals dominated campaign fundraising. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was conceived 40 years ago to level the presidential playing field and to give political unknowns a fighting chance. To a lesser extent, the fund also engaged average citizens by allowing them to voluntarily check off a fund donation on their income taxes. At its height, the fund allowed candidates to forgo frenetic cross-country fundraising. The program boosted outsiders like Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, and for years, it helped limit campaign costs. But with the explosion of campaign spending, fewer and fewer candidates have embraced the program. Today, it has become irrelevant.
In recent years, an ever-smaller percentage of taxpayers have checked off the box on their 1040 forms to authorize that $3 go into the fund. But, says Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor who specializes in presidential campaigns, the fund now stands as “the last life raft of what was once the flagship of reform.” Everyone agrees the system is badly broken. Today, the question is whether it should be wheeled into the shop for a total remodeling or hauled off to the scrap yard.