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In his Seventh Annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt proposed what he acknowledged was a “very radical measure”: public funding of election campaigns. Roosevelt had previously urged a federal campaign disclosure law and restrictions on corporate contributions, and Congress had adopted a corporate contribution ban earlier that year. But Roosevelt warned that disclosure and contribution limits alone would not be enough to truly reform campaign finance. “[L]aws of this kind,” that is, regulations of private campaign money, “from their very nature are difficult of enforcement,” Roosevelt observed. They posed the “danger” they would be “obeyed only by the honest, and disobeyed by the unscrupulous, so as to act only as a penalty upon honest men.” “Moreover,” he continued, “no such law would hamper an unscrupulous man of unlimited means from buying his own way into office.” Public financing would solve the problem of evasion and directly address the power of the wealthy. “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish,” Roosevelt predicted, “if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses” of political campaigns.

This chapter examines the place of public funding in democratic elections. The next Part explores the various forms of public funding and some common themes that cut across all public funding programs. Part III considers the constitutional framework that supports but also constrains public funding. Part IV reviews some of the evidence concerning public funding’s effects on elections and governance. Part V concludes with an assessment of the future of public funding.


Election Law | Law


This material has been published in "Democracy by the People: Reforming Campaign Finance in America", edited by Eugene D. Mazo and Timothy K. Kuhner. This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use.

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