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Here's a question as you finish your tax return. That little checkoff box at the top of the 1040 form, the one labeled, presidential election campaign - did you check it? Turns out, not very many people do. NPR's Peter Overby has the story of the Watergate-era reform behind that box, the one that was supposed to push big money out of presidential politics.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The little box is for presidential public financing. To understand the appeal of public financing, you can start with Watergate - million-dollar contributions, secret donors, government decisions favoring corporate moneymen. In 1972, that was a scandal, and Congress created presidential public financing. In the primaries, presidential candidates can get matching funds based on how much they get from small donors. For the general election, federal grants can pay for everything. The Democratic and Republican nominees don't have to raise money at all.
But along with the money, the candidates face mandatory limits on spending. And here's where you come in. The public funds would come mainly from taxpayers marking that little checkoff box on the 1040. At first, public financing was kind of popular. The measures the percentage of taxpayers who check the box - in 1976...
ANN RAVEL: It was at 27.5 percent. In 2013 the figure was only 6 percent.
OVERBY: This is Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, the agency that oversees presidential public financing. So, why the plunge in support? The obvious reason is the Washington money chase. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain took the federal grant for the fall campaign, all $84 million of it. He lost to Barack Obama who rejected the public funds and raised 745 million. And then came the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which encouraged outside money in campaigns, raising the ante even higher. And there's more. Campaign-finance lawyer Brett Kappel points to the box itself.
BRETT KAPPEL: It's buried, and it's at the very top of the form, and it's, you know, right after the standard information - name, address - so it's easy to overlook.
OVERBY: He also says people misunderstand the checkoff.
KAPPEL: That money comes out of appropriated funds. It does not come out of the refund that the taxpayer is owed.
OVERBY: Then there's the way the system treats candidates. Benjamin Barr is a lawyer for the conservative Pillar of Law Institute.
BENJAMIN BARR: You just have a inherently inefficient regulatory system that sets sort of an arbitrary number that isn't responsive to what candidates may or may not need.
OVERBY: This election cycle, nobody has applied for public financing, but FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel says it can help lesser-known candidates - the kind who need a platform to present their ideas.
RAVEL: In my view, it's good for democracy.
OVERBY: Something to decide for yourself before midnight tomorrow. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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