Publicly Funded Campaigns -- Letter from City Manager

Publicly Funded Campaigns -- Letter from City Manager


In response to a recent City Council Policy order, City Manager Rossi has reported back to the Government Operations, Rules, and Claims Committee on the feasibility of publicly funded elections for Cambridge. Based on conversations with Attorney Greg Birne, the General Counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance it was determined that making public funds equally available to all qualifying local candidates would not be prohibited by state law. Some concerns were broached by the Attorney General’s office about how the changes could potentially conflict with the Home Rule Amendment, which prohibits municipalities from passing ordinances that “regulate elections”. If this was ruled to be the case, the City would have to enact publicly funded elections through a vote at the statehouse. In response, it was noted by the Election Division’s Counsel that it is still too early to determine if a public elections scheme would equate to regulation, and as such, reserved judgment.


Cited in the letter are a handful of examples of other states and cities that have enacted some sort of public funding for elections. One such example is New York City’s Campaign Finance Act (originally enacted in 1988). This is a voluntary program for candidates in which they can receive matching funds from the city and are subject to spending limits. Qualifying donations have to be from NYC residents, not corporations, and are matched on a 6 to 1 ratio for $175 donations. However, if candidates choose not to participate in the program, they are not subject to any spending limits.


Another example is Albuquerque, New Mexico where City Council candidates must gather 500 signatures of registered voters and $5 qualifying contributions from at least 1% of the registered voters in the district they seek to represent. This public funding scheme was used for the first time in Sante Fe, New Mexico’s most recent mayoral race. Each candidate received $60,000 in taxpayer dollars, but issues arose when one candidate was supported by outside PAC money.


Recently, there have been several very significant federal decisions that have struck down certain provisions of public financing laws on the basis of the First Amendment right to “political speech”. The most well know is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), where the Supreme Court held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett, 131 S.Ct. 2806 (2011), the United States Supreme Court held in a 5 to 4 decision that the Arizona state laws governing the disbursement of matching funds to publicly funded candidates violated the First Amendment. In Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230 (2006), the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Vermont Campaign Finance Reform Act that set limits on the amount that candidates for state office could spend on their campaigns.


The City Manager’s letter closes by acknowledging that constructing and implementing a local public financing system for campaigns in Cambridge would be a “considerable undertaking”, but that it is something that could discussed further with the Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee.

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