Your $3 Tax Check-Off and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund: An Obit?

For the millions of people scrambling this weekend to finish their tax returns (this reporter included), there is one decision we will be asked to make and have been repeatedly since at least 1976:

Do you want to designate three of your tax dollars for the presidential election campaign fund?

That question appears every year somewhere on Form 1040. This year it's in a box near the top, right next to the area for the taxpayer's personal information, and it looks like this:

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This little box represents something much, much bigger. It is the very foundation of a public campaign funding system that has been a hallmark of presidential campaigns since 1976. And with both major party candidates set to reject public funds in a general election for the first time since the program's inception, it's worth asking whether this system is going to be around much longer.

However, a lot of other questions come to mind, too, and at least one of them is answered right on the form. No, checking the box will not mean you are giving $3 of your own money, and it will not be deducted from your refund. What it does mean is that you want $3 of the total amount you already owe the government to be earmarked specifically for the presidential election campaign fund. If you check that box, the government has to put that $3 into the fund and will not be allowed to use it for anything else.

When the public campaign funding system was set up in the mid-'70s, the idea was to create a more level playing field for candidates in what is by far the most expensive political race in our nation. Each candidate in the general election would be given the same amount of money, making it a contest for the best man or woman to win and in theory, at least, reduce the possibility of corruption that inevitably comes with the quest for money and power (the public was still reeling from the Watergate scandal during the Nixon Administration).

But rather than decide in advance how much public money should go into the fund each year, the final decision was left to individual taxpayers. Checking (or not checking) that box is not the same as submitting a ballot, but it is a kind of vote.

Other questions come to mind, too. How much is in the fund right now? How often do (or did candidates actually use public money? Who has used it the most? And how many people actually check that box?

The answers to all of these questions and more can be found right on the website of the Federal Election Commission, which administers the fund and is the agency tasked with ensuring fair elections. But we've boiled it down to some quick answers and highlighted some of the more interesting trends in the charts below.

What are the rules for the candidates and how much do they get?

Basically, candidates can tap the election fund throughout the primary season and again during the general election. The rules are different according to each election.

During the primaries, candidates who choose to participate can apply for matching fund grants. The rules get fairly particular, but essentially a candidate can receive up to $250 for each contribution made by an individual. There is a catch, however. If a candidate decides to take the matching funds, he or she must agree to a spending limit. For 2012, that limit was set to $45.6 million. The most a candidate can expect to receive in matching funds is half of the spending limit, so about $23 million.

During the general election, if the candidates opt in, they receive a much larger amount as one fixed sum. A base amount of $20 million was set in the '70s, but a Cost of Living Adjustment, or COLA, was built in from the start. With the COLA, a candidate choosing to participate this year would expect to receive $91.2 million.

But again there's a catch. Candidates who take the grant are not allowed to do any private fundraising. Also, only the major party candidates (from the Republican and Democratic parties) get this amount. Other parties have historically received grants, but for a much smaller amount (see below).

A third portion of the campaign check-off fund is set aside to help the major political parties host their nominating conventions. This year, the Republicans and the Democrats each received $17.7 million.

How often do candidates actually use the fund?

Actually, just about every major candidate made use of the money in some way until very recently. The presidential election fund and the tax check-off that refills it have represented a major component of presidential election campaigns since they were introduced. Of course, the rules have changed since then, and so-called super PACs, independent expenditures and other forms of indirect campaign financing have pushed the real amount of spending into the hundreds of millions. But President Barack Obama was in fact the first major party candidate since the inception of the program to decline the general election grant.

Here's a breakdown of how much the candidates received in each general election since 1976. Remember, Republican and Democratic candidates receive an identical and preset amount, so the bars for these two parties will be the same height each year. Note, however, the absence of a blue bar in 2008, when Obama declined to use public money.

Public Funds Received by Party in the General Election, 1976-2008
Hover over each segment for the exact amounts. Source: Federal Election Commission

And here's how much each party received in primary matching funds for all candidates:

Primary Matching Funds Received by Party, 1976-2008
Hover over each column for the exact amounts. Source: Federal Election Commission

But those are party totals. Which individual candidate received the most in primary matching funds?

Former president Bill Clinton to date received the largest amount over the life of his political career in primary matching funds.

The first chart below shows the career totals in matching funds for each candidate. The second breaks down the totals by election year. Both charts show only those candidates who have received more than $1 million in matching funds since the program's start.

Primary Matching Funds by Candidate, Career Totals
Hover over each column for the candidate's name and career amount received. Source: Federal Election Commission

Primary Matching Funds Received by Candidate, 1976-2008

Hover over each segment for the candidate's name and amount received. Source: Federal Election Commission

How many people actually check the box anyway?

The popularity of the check-off program has declined steadily since it started, with a smaller and smaller share of taxpayers opting to put their dollars toward the fund.

% of Taxpayers Who Opted to Contribute, 1976-2010
Hover over the line to see percentages. Source: Federal Election Commission

A decline in check-offs should mean a decline in total funds, but in 1994 Congress raised the amount of the contribution from $1 to $3.

So how much is in the fund now?

Numbers are available up to the year 2010. This final chart shows the closing balance for each year dating back to 1992. The fund balance dips in election years as money is disbursed to candidates. During every other year, however, the fund is replenished, since we file taxes and therefore decide whether or not to contribute annually.

Note the overall balance was at an all-time high in 2010 despite the drop in the number of taxpayers who designated money to the fund. That can be explained at least in part by the increase in the check-off amount, but more importantly Obama's decision not to use public funds in the 2008 election left an uncommonly large surplus.

End-of-Year Fund Balance, 1976-2010
Hover over the chart to see the exact amount. Source: Federal Election Commission

Now, as you rush to file that return, it's up to you whether or not to contribute and help keep the presidential election campaign fund alive. It's also up to the candidates whether or not they want to use it, with all the spending limits that decision entails. This year it looks like neither President Obama nor GOP shoo-in Mitt Romney will do so, making it all but certain that after a period of nearly 40 years of presidential spending limits, 2012 will see the most expensive political race in the history of the United States.

Either way, many happy tax returns. Which reminds me, it's time for me to finish mine.

The photo for this post on the home page was used courtesy of Flickr user 401k under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Web Editor for SoCal Connected, KCET's award-winning television newsmagazine. He has worked in just about every medium, with stories appearing on TV, radio, Web, and print. He is also the editor of the Online Journalism Review at ...
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