Minnesota is no stranger to non-traditional politics. Though in the last 10 years they've sent a professional wrestler to the governor's mansion and a comedian to the U.S. Senate, the land of 10,000 lakes is home to more than just wacky politics. The state is also home to a gutsy campaign finance system, the results of which should give new hope to campaign finance reformists across America.
Established in 1992, Minnesota's Political Contribution Refund (PCR) program provides a $50 rebate to those who donate to political candidates in state-wide races. Unlike similar programs, which use tax write-offs to encourage political donations (and subsequently take months to process), the PCR rebate is sent to donors almost immediately. The results are impressive: According to the Campaign Finance Institute, during the 2006 election cycle, Minnesota stood well above other states in terms of money raised by small donors. 45 percent of private contributions to candidates were donations under $100, while in comparison, the majority of other states measured below 10 percent.
This is an important statistic for a number of key reasons: First, there is a clear link between those who donate to a political campaign and those that candidates and elected officials cater their policies towards. Results show the PCR has helped balance the donor base of candidates dramatically. According to surveys conducted by the Campaign Finance Institute, well over 80 percent of candidates agreed that the PCR motivated them seek donations from lower income voters, many of whom most likely would not have donated without the refund. With the citizen thrust to a more pivotal role in financing elections, PCR-like reforms would prompt candidates to spend more time listening to the needs of these donors, and less to mega-party bundlers, labor unions, and corporate interests.
Second, statistics show that contributing money to a political campaign leads to increased political activity. In Minnesota, candidates reported that once an individual donated, they were much more likely to volunteer with the campaign and almost guaranteed to cast a ballot. Since getting Americans to participate in elections is not exactly easy, this is important. From extensive advertising campaigns and "Get Out The Vote" efforts, massive amounts of money and resources have been mobilized on the city, state, and national elections to lure citizens into the political process. However, as seen by New York City's recent mayoral elections, the posters on subway walls and on the sides of buses urging voters to cast a ballot did not prevent a dismal turnout on Election Day.
Third, this program gives access to the political arena to individuals who may not drive a Cadillac or own a tuxedo. In a political world that is increasingly dominated by those from upper-tax brackets, the PCR provides a way for candidates with the best ideas- rather than those who shoot the best 18 hole- to compete for public office. With a broad base of middle-class support, a candidate could rely less on the usual sources of political contributions, and instead turn to voters from all incomes brackets for support.
Like all attempts at campaign finance reform, Minnesota's campaign finance laws are far from perfect. Large allowances for soft-money donations, and high contribution and expenditure limits still give ample room for wealthy interests to dictate a generous degree of control over political campaigns. During the last gubernatorial election in Minnesota, special interests poured money into PAC's and party caucuses, all but drowning out the effects of the PCR. Also, with state and national budgets in dire straits, new spending is currently a hard sell. This past July, for example, Governor Tim Pawlenty suspended the PCR, arguing that spending cuts were needed to avoid a budget crisis.
However, the success of PCR should excite campaign finance reform advocates across the country. With the Supreme Court likely to overturn the Citizens United case and open the door wider for special interests to dictate political campaigns, campaign finance reformists need to focus their energy in a new direction. Rather than continuing to pour all efforts into the uphill battle to diminish the influence of the wealthy, reformists should seek to strengthen the power of the middle class in deciding elections. Though it may take the strength of a professional wrestler, and the charm of a comedian to get such reform passed, Minnesota's PCR program should provide a model for States that are serious about campaign finance reform.
Gareth Rhodes is a sophomore at The City College of New York studying political science, and a Fellow at the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies.