Public financing for presidential elections is nearing collapse, reported USA Today in a breathless late-January cover story. Just 11 percent of taxpayers in 2000—compared to 27.5 percent when the system was established in 1976—checked the box on their returns that siphons $3 of their tax money into a federal election kitty. The take in 2000 totaled $210 million.
USA Today's experts portray the decline in participation as a major civic Code Red, since it suggests "eroding public awareness and support" for the presidential campaign financing system. "It would be a disaster for the country to lose the system," Fred Wertheimer of the reform group Democracy 21 told the paper. "It would put the presidency right back on the auction block."
But maybe taxpayers merely have noticed the obvious: The public financing system never took the presidency off the block. It does add coin to the till of established, major-party candidates—if they want it. President Bush didn't accept public funds for his 2000 presidential primary, preferring to sidestep the $40.5 million spending limit participation would have required.
Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission doles out general presidential election funds only to parties that received at least 5 percent of the vote in the previous election. So, far from leveling the playing field, the system socks the smallest parties with an added financial disadvantage.
CHART (not available online): Taxpayer Participation in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (as a percentage of all returns filed)