June 11, 2015

Udall Champions Bill to Empower Small Donors in Elections

Fair Elections Now Act would fight big money in Senate campaigns

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall announced that he has joined U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and others in introducing the Fair Elections Now Act, which would dramatically change the way congressional elections are financed. Under the legislation, qualified Senate candidates would earn grants, matching funds, and television vouchers to run competitive campaigns based on small-dollar contributions, rather than rely on funding from wealthy donors and special interests. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich is also a cosponsor, and New Mexico Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG) supports the bill.

The Fair Elections Now Act would help reduce the influence of wealthy donors and special interests by creating a voluntary system of public financing for Senate candidates. Candidates who participate in the Fair Elections process would agree to limit their campaign spending to the amounts raised from small-dollar donors plus the amounts provided by the Fair Elections Fund.

"I'm leading the push to amend the Constitution and overturn Citizens United because we have to stop big money from undermining elections and our democracy. We can take action in the meantime by ensuring small donors have a real voice in today's congressional campaigns," Udall said. "The Fair Elections Now Act would elevate the role of small donors, amplifying New Mexicans' voices and ensuring that congressional candidates are listening to their concerns on the campaign trail — rather than catering to billionaires with huge checkbooks."

Udall, a leading advocate for campaign finance reform, has introduced and cosponsored numerous bills to fight the influence of big money in elections. For example, earlier this year, he introduced legislation to empower small donors in presidential elections. His Empowering Mass Participation to Offset the Wealthy's Electoral Role (EMPOWER) Act would modernize the presidential public financing system to help publicly funded candidates compete.

The Fair Elections Now Act amends the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 to establish a voluntary method for financing Senate campaigns. The Fair Elections system is composed of three stages:

1) To participate, candidates would first need to prove their viability by raising a minimum number and minimum dollar amount of small-dollar qualifying contributions from in-state donors. Once a candidate qualifies, that candidate must limit the amount raised from each donor to $150 per election.

2) For the primary, participants would receive a base grant that would vary in amount based on the population of the state that the candidate seeks to represent. Participants would also receive a 6-to-1 match for small-dollar donations up to a defined matching cap. After reaching that cap, the candidate could raise an unlimited amount of unmatched $150 contributions if needed to compete against high-spending opponents, as well as contributions from small-donor People PACs.

3) For the general election, qualified candidates would receive an additional grant, small-dollar matching, and media vouchers for television advertising. The candidate could continue to raise an unlimited amount of $150 contributions if needed, as well as contributions from small-donor People PACs.

The bill also establishes a "My Voice Tax Credit" to encourage individuals to make small donations to campaigns. The maximum refundable amount for the tax credit would be $25 for individuals and $50 for joint filers. To ensure that the tax credit targets small donors, it is only available to individuals who do not contribute more than $300 to a candidate or political party in any given year.

Additionally, the bill creates a type of small-donor political action committee, known as a "People PAC." In contrast to traditional federal PACs that can accept contributions of up to $5,000 per year from individuals or Super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions, People PACs would only be permitted to accept contributions of $150 or less per election from individuals. People PACs would thus allow average citizens an opportunity for making their collective voices heard. Small donors would be able to aggregate their funds in a People PAC to make campaign contributions of up to $5,000 per election to qualified Fair Elections candidates. Coupled with the Fair Elections public financing system, People PACs would elevate the views and interests of a diverse spectrum of Americans, rather than those of the traditional, wealthy donor class.

Special rules would apply for runoff and uncontested elections. Participating candidates would receive enough funding to compete in every election, without having to spend most of their time raising money.

The Fair Elections Now Act would not add a dime to the deficit. It would be financed by a .05 percent fee on annual federal contracts over $10 million, with a maximum fee of $500,000 per year.

A companion bill to the Fair Elections Now Act was introduced earlier this year in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). The Government by the People Act would establish a similar public financing system for House candidates.