Navigating publicly financed elections

Navigating publicly financed elections
Small dollar clean elections programs have their quirks. Some tips on navigating them. 

With Washington sweating over the country’s growing budget deficit, public funding of elections may be in trouble—at least at the federal level.

Last week, the House GOP pushed through a measure that would eliminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and shut down the Election Assistance Commission, which is tasked with helping local officials maintain voting integrity. The measure, which is considered dead-on-arrival in the Senate, would save the country $480 million over five years, according to the bill’s sponsor, Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper (R).

The renewed debate over public financing in Washington comes as many states have adopted clean elections programs. Typically, these programs expect campaigns to raise large amounts of local, low-dollar contributions, which states or cities then match with taxpayer-funded grants. The programs poll exceptionally well and enable campaigns to spend less time on fundraising, albeit if they agree to tight contribution limits and expenditure rules.          

These programs are widespread. In Maine, Connecticut and Arizona the majority of legislative races and statewide candidates have run and won through clean elections programs. California, New Mexico and Hawaii also have programs at the local level. Judicial candidates can run in clean elections environments in Wisconsin and West Virginia, and down ballot statewide races can participate in North Carolina’s clean elections system.

But running in a clean elections system will require some adjustments to your finance plan. Here are some things campaigns should keep in mind when navigating the variable taxpayer-funded terrain:  

It’s a fundraising drive, not a finance department. These programs often require that candidates meet multiple fundraising benchmarks, including accepting a large number of in-state or local contributions. In order to be successful, you’ll need a tight operation that looks more like your GOTV program than your traditional finance shop. Set deadlines and pump up the level of activity by setting daily, weekly and even hourly goals. Consider hiring sharp field staffers who can be trained on fundraising basics, and then moved over to run your field or GOTV operation.

Don’t assume that donors understand the program. They don’t. Nobody understands your program. They need you to explain it to them (repeatedly). Even after several cycles, most clean elections systems will confuse and, at times, frustrate your donors. Each letter, email blast, website solicit page, or candidate speech must include a quick overview of the system.

Consider the legal ramifications of your announcement date. Most clean elections programs treat candidates considering a run and announced candidates in different ways, holding them to different limits. Make sure that your lawyer is involved, and understands the legal steps to announce. And be careful: Some campaign activities trigger an “announcement” phase or push the envelope between a prospective and announced candidate.

Your raisers, PACs and bundlers matter. With the focus on low-dollar contributions, you may be tempted to turn a cold shoulder to PACs and your high-dollar bundlers. Don’t ignore these folks. They can still play an important role in your fundraising operation. Treat them as you normally would a finance committee, but switch the goal to the number of donors. In systems that require high numbers of donors from within your area, a bundler with the ability to get fifty donors of any amount will make a substantial impact.Events, events and more events. Map out your donor community. You’ll likely need to hold four to five times the number of events under this system than you would if you were able to hold the large “catch call” high-dollar events that succeed in a typical fundraising program.Compliance is part of the game. Only valid contributions count in a clean elections system—miss a key piece of information or neglect to file the right paperwork and your fundraising won’t count. With that in mind, you’ll need to develop a strong organization to ensure compliance, and if you’re smart, you’ll do this in consultation with the clean elections office. If it’s allowed, consider submitting some contributions early in order to find out what percentage get approved.  If 7 percent of your contributions in this test are kicked back, your fundraising goal should be 107 percent of what you need to qualify.

Thoroughly review the expenditure rules. Win bonuses, for instance, are often governed by clean elections laws. The role of the treasurer may also be more defined under a clean elections requirement. So look for more responsibility in approving contracts, and more accountability. Don’t assume you’re governed by the same rules that applied in federal races or state races outside of the clean elections program. These programs will have their quirks. After all, there’s no such thing as free money.

Dan Kelly has consulted on, managed, or led field operations on 24 campaigns in ten states and managed nearly 300 full time staff. In 2010, Kelly managed Dan Malloy’s campaign for governor in Connecticut, defeating two of the top ten self-funders of the cycle.

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