Fair Elections in Rhode Island

In 2006 Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Rhoda Perry introduced the Full Public Financing of Campaigns (FPFC) Act into the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives. Having undergone many revisions and improvements, it is now known as the Rhode Island Fair Elections Act.

The Fair Elections Act implements an innovative solution to rising campaign costs and the influence of special interest money in Rhode Island state politics. Under FPFC, any candidate that demonstrates a broad base of grassroots support can qualify to receive a limited amount of public funding while campaigning. Evidence from Maine, Arizona, Vermont, and other states shows that Fair Elections is both affordable and effective in changing the way state politics is run.

Who are we?

Rhode Islanders for Fair Elections is a non-profit coalition fighting to get private money out of Rhode Island politics. As a part of the pro-democracy movement gaining nationwide momentum, we aim to connect community groups and people from across the political spectrum through both education and action.

“The number of phone calls that I’ve received with issues my constituents wanted to discuss has tripled since I was a Clean Elections-elected candidate. I guess they feel more comfortable contacting me since I contacted them in the first place and they know they helped my campaign by giving money.”

—Arizona Representative Martha Garcia

Why reform?

While our country was founded on the principle of "one man, one vote," Rhode Island's campaign finance law privileges both wealthier candidates and constituents. Time and again, issues that matter to women, minorities, and the general public are kept off the agenda. We need real, substantive reform. Full public financing of elections is the beginning of a solution.

Maine and Arizona are two states where voters have successfully implemented a system of full public financing of campaigns. These states' experiences exemplify how full public financing of elections can positively impact democracy: with increased voter turnout, political transparency, and diversity of candidates, including a fuller representation of women and minorities.

The Fair Elecitons Act is designed to provide a clear alternative to the current system of raising and spending largely special-interest money to finance election campaigns. It allows qualified candidates to run for public office without compromising their independence since they won't have to ask for money from those with a vested interest in public policy. The system is completely voluntary and candidates who do not wish to participate are able to raise and spend private money for their campaigns, as they do today.

“Contrary to the belief that low-income districts could not support the [public
financing] program, I find the program most welcome among my constituents. I am
in the process of serving my third term in the Maine House of Representatives and
have financed every campaign using the [public financing] program. I wouldn’t do
it any other way. I would lose too many low-income constituents who want to be a
part of my reelection.”

—Maine Senator Jim Annis

How it works:

Qualification - To qualify into the system, candidates must demonstrate that they are credible candidates with grassroots support. This is done by collecting a prescribed number of signatures and $5 qualifying contributions from registered voters in their district. To cover minor costs during the qualifying period, candidates are permitted to raise a limited amount of seed money from private sources in amounts not exceeding $100 per contributor.

Primary funding -- Candidates who successfully qualify for public funds and agree not to raise or spend private money during the primary and general election campaign periods receive a set amount of money from a dedicated fund.

General election funding -- Candidates who win their party primaries and qualifying independent candidates who agree to the voluntary restrictions receive a set amount of general election funding from the dedicated fund.

Non-participating candidates and independent expenditures -- In order to maintain a financially level playing field, publicly financed candidates who are outspent by privately financed opponents, or targeted by independent expenditures, are entitled to a limited amount of matching funds.

“I would recommend the Clean Elections program to anyone. Without Clean Elections I would not have had the financial means to run for office in my district.”

—Arizona Representative Manuel Alvarez

Important Terms:

Exploratory Period:
The period of time
beginning the day after the previous General
Election when a candidate is allowed to
collect private donations of seed money, to
an established limit, in order to determine
his/her viability to run a successful campaign
under the public funding system.

Seed Money:
A contribution of no more than
$100 made by an individual to a potential
candidate during the Exploratory Period. All seed money must be reported to the
Board of Elections.

Limits on seed money:

Senator: $1,000
Governor: $90,000
Other Statewide Office: $56,000

Qualifying Period:
The 90-day period of
time when a candidate must collect a certain
number of $5 Qualifying Contributions
from constituents in order to prove that the
candidate holds public interest. Once this
money is collected, it is placed into the Public
Financing of Elections Fund to be distributed
amongst the participating candidates for
each Election Cycle.

Required Qualifying Contributions:

Representative: 50
Senator: 100
Governor: 2,500
Other Statewide Office: 1,000

“At the time that I ran for office under Clean Elections, my district was considered to be ‘low-income’ with a predominately minority-based constituency, and I had an easy time collecting the $5 donations. Yeah, you may have to knock on a few more doors than in wealthier neighborhoods, but it can definitely get done. You should be out there anyway. If you can’t get the required number of signatures for Clean Elections then your problem is not with the Clean Elections system.”

—Arizona Representative Martha Garcia

Initial Grant:
The amount given to qualifying
candidates for the primary and general
elections to be spent on their campaign.

Initial Grant Amount, Primary:

Senator: $12,000
Governor: $1,125,000
Other Statewide Office:$450,000

Initial Grant Amount, General:

Representative: $9,000

Governor: $1,875,000
Other Statewide Office:$675,000

“I represent a low-income district. Jobs in this area never reach beyond $12-13 per hour. A median income is in the vicinity of $8 an hour. I am a Clean Election recipient. I find it the only way I can finance my campaign... Finding 50 people to make a $5.00 commitment to my campaign is the easiest part of the election process. In fact, folks call and ask why I haven't contacted them for a contribution. Contributors come away happy and I have completed my obligation to the Clean Election fund.”

—Maine Senator Jim Annis

Uncontested Races:
When a participating
candidate runs in a race with no balloted
opponent that candidate receives only a
portion of the initial grant. This portion is
25% for primary elections and 10% for general

Matching Funds:
When a participating
candidate runs against a non-participating
candidate who spends above the initial
grant amount, the participating candidate
is given additional funds to match his/her
opponent’s spending up to four times the
amount of the initial grant.

Third-party Candidates:
Third-party and
independent candidates that qualify for the
system are given 25% of the initial grant for
the primary election cycle and the full grant
for the general election cycle.

Proof of success

  • 10 of the 11 statewide offices in Arizona are held by publicly financed candidates.
  • Voter turnout increased 23% between 1998 and 2006 in Arizona. In 2004, turnout in Maine hit a record high of 73.75%, in a year that 77% of candidates were publicly financed.
  • Voter turnout increased significantly in every county where minority communities are found, especially in African-American and Latino communities — including the counties that had experienced a decrease in voter turnout for the previous election cycle.
  • In Arizona, the number of Latinos running for office has increased by 220%, with nearly 65% choosing to accept public funds. As a consequence, more minority voters are turning out to the polls.
  • More and more women have successfully sought political office under public financing in Maine. Out of these women, fully 42% said they wouldn’t have run for office if not for the public financing system.***

“For all that people have said about Clean Elections getting women and minorities on the ticket and into office, it’s absolutely true. It has made a huge impact.”

—Arizona Representative Martha Garcia