The Price of Public Service

*Despite rising diversity in the ranks of candidates, women and people of color for public office are still underrepresented, partially on account of fundraising barriers.

*A recent study found that a $6-to-$1 match for each donation of $200 or less would have benefit congressional candidates, especially women and those of color who generally rely more on small donors.

In America, the land of You Can Be Anything You Want to Be, a line of rap sold exclusively to schoolchildren and idealists these days, it’s been less true now than at any other time in our collective political history. According to the Federal Elections Commission campaign data, as recently as 2018, if what you wanted was to be a member of Congress it could cost you as much, or more, than $18 million.

The $18 million campaign, launched by the very white David Trone (D), of Maryland’s 6th District, spent this much to win his seat in 2018. Which is easy to do if you own a $3 billion wine business and are willing to spend your own money to do so.

But if you don’t want to run the priciest campaign to win what’s left? Outside of losing?

Serrano spent $2 per person to get their vote. By the same math Trone spent $112.40 per voter for his votes.

A price tag of a cool $240,000 spent by the very Puerto Rican Democratic incumbent Jose Serrano in the same year. On the basis of the number of people in New York’s 15th district Serrano spent $2 per person to get their vote. By the same math Trone spent $112.40 per voter for his votes.

To put a finer point on it, if you don’t have the dimes, don’t waste your time since, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the projected costs of running for congress this year will total $5,674,950,826. Competing for even a fraction of this, puts congressional candidates of color and women at a disadvantage for reasons that are both complicated and compelling.

In a 2006 paper on Race, Gender, and Descriptive Representation (Hardy-Fanta et al) it lays out that donors calibrate the amount of money they give on the basis of how much they think the candidate can fundraise. If the perception is that the candidate can’t raise much on their own, donors are not likely to pile on. If donors are not likely to pile on, then candidates are less likely to raise much.

And since you can only spend what you have, and you only have what donors are giving you, unless you’re independently wealthy like the aforementioned Trone, you’re done against better-funded candidates. The better-funded candidates, typically white men, are nowhere close to facing the systematic disadvantages faced by non-white candidates.

“How do you create equity in funding African American and
Latino women who have less access to fundraising money in the first place,” asked former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner who authored a report on fundraising challenges in an interview for the Center for American Progress. “If your standard for giving money is that the person has to hit a certain threshold?”

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law has an idea.

Specifically, a special kind of small donor financing where each small donation a qualifying candidate gets is matched with government funds.

“The campaign finance portion of democracy,” said Chisun Lee, Deputy Director in the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program, “can be used to keep our government as diverse as the people it’s governing.”

How does Lee know? Because if you take the voluntary small donor match program in the For the People Act (HR 1), passed by the House last year, and apply it to the House races in the last four general elections, you’d find that the $6-to-$1 match for each donation of $200 or less would have benefited all candidates running for Congress. But, especially, candidates of color and women who generally rely more on small donors.

“We just got it enacted in New York State,” said Lee. “And it’s allowed a wider variety of people to participate in this extremely important part of the political process.”

But while 2018 might be considered a success based on prior years, The Center for Responsive Politics puts a fire under the need for more equity and not less. This, in light of their findings that even if women keep winning congressional races like they did in 2018, it would still take more than three decades for their numbers in Congress to reflect their 51 percent share of the general population.

Three decades. Thirty years.

Though Lee states that the program is nonpartisan and she gives a nod to republican supporters of these reforms, the For the People Act (HR 1) has been on Mitch McConnell’s desk since January 2019.

“Though we’ve seen lots of positive political effects in New York,” Lee concludes in an understatement to end all understatements. “Much hinges on the upcoming election outcome.”


Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.