'Check here' to support the election on your IRS form? Maybe not for long

Story highlights

  • Currently, taxpayers can direct $3 to support presidential elections and conventions
  • That option may disappear if a bill passes the Senate
  • Fewer than 7% of taxpayers took advantage of it in 2010
  • The $600 million collected so far would be redirected to other programs
Remember the little box you can check off on your federal tax return to donate three dollars to pay for presidential campaigns? House Republicans voted that in this era of e-mailing or texting campaign contributions, it's time to get rid of the federal program, and remove taxpayer money from presidential elections and political conventions.
The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that eliminates the "Presidential Election Campaign Fund" and uses the over $600 million it's collected since the end of 2010 to pay for other programs. However, a similar bill in the Senate appears to be stalled. The White House has said it opposes the measure, but has not yet threatened a veto.
The House passed a similar bill in January, but this new legislation pushed by Republicans also eliminates the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent agency created after the 2000 presidential recount in Florida to help states meet minimum federal standards for voting equipment and administering elections.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, sponsored both bills, and argues that public financing in presidential races is no longer necessary.
"Everybody is about one viral video away from becoming world famous around here. It's not hard to raise money. The Internet has totally revolutionized this. The American people have moved on," Cole told CNN.
Since the Presidential Election Campaign fund was created in 1976, the Internal Revenue Service reported that about 30% of taxpayers participated in 1980 -- the highest rate on record -- but in 2010 less than 7% of taxpayers checked off the box on their tax forms to direct money to the program.
When the program was created, it originally directed $1 from the Treasury to the fund for those who wanted to participate, but the amount was upped to $3 in 1994.
Taxpayers who participate do not increase their tax liability. Candidates who apply for public financing must adhere to overall spending limits. Those running for their party's nomination can apply for partial federal matching funds by raising at least $5,000 in 20 states. According to the FEC, every campaign since 1976 has included at least partial public financing.
But in the 2008 presidential campaign, both of the major political party candidates -- then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain -- opted out of the public financing system in the primary, and Obama decided against participating in it for the general election because he didn't want to be limited to the cap on campaign spending.
Cole criticized Obama for trying to have it both ways -- he didn't want to operate within the public financing system himself, but hasn't joined any efforts to eliminate it at a time when the money saved could be used for other priorities.
But Democrats say the fund and the Election Assistance Commission were put in place after two public controversies: Public financing was created after the Watergate scandal and the EAC was set up after the 2000 Florida recount. They worry that eliminating them would erode public confidence about private money having too much influence in campaigns.
Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pennsylvania, said the taxpayer funding is entirely voluntary, but that ending it now and closing down the EAC sends the wrong signal.
"When we give the impression that our policy choices will be influenced by campaign donations, we sell out the American people. When we try to deprive citizens of information about their rights and responsibilities as voters, we erode trust in our system. It is tantamount to legal corruption and has no place in our democratic system," Brady argued in testimony this week before the House Rules Committee.
The presidential election fund also helps pay for both parties political conventions. According to the Federal Election Commission the Democratic and Republican conventions planners have already received more than $18 million to plan their conventions in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tampa, Florida, scheduled for the end of this summer.
Cole, who before serving in Congress was a top aide at the Republican National Committee, said both parties will spend more than $100 million on their conventions, but they don't need to rely on federal help anymore because they can raise the money from private sources.
"The president talks a lot about shared sacrifice. He should call up Debbie Wasserman Schultz [chair of the DNC], my good friend and colleague, and say you should give back that $17 million and then the Republicans I bet would feel they have to give it back," Cole said.
As for getting rid of the EAC, supporters of the bill argue that there once was a need for the agency to help states upgrade and meet standards after the 2000 election, but states stopped asking for federal guidance.
But Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer says doing away with the Election Assistance Commission only a year before a presidential election could lead to lower voter turnout.
"The Commission's primary mission is to provide states with the resources they need to ensure everyone eligible to vote can cast their ballots and have their voices heard. We ought to be making it easier for voters, not eroding our ability to protect them and their right to participate," Hoyer told CNN.