Before the Citizens United decision, public financing would have been an excellent means of reform. But now, all independent electioneering money has free speech protection which has led to phenomenal growth of special interest campaign funding. If we don’t directly address that Supreme Court decision, public financing will do nothing to stop this growth.
To PAC supporters, public financing will just escalate the campaign finance wars with government as the new competitor. Since we cannot prevent PAC influence, we can only dilute it with a lot of tax money for federal offices, and massive amounts for tens of thousands of state and local offices.
So pouring more money into a process that already has too much is not actually reform. If we implement public financing, we must first make sure those funds are not wasted, supplemented or swamped by big donors. This means we must first restrict what big donors can do with their money and only a constitutional amendment can achieve that.
There will be no legal way to stop candidates who are supported by “independent” super PACs from also taking public financing if they simply claim to have no relationship with the PAC (the common practice today). And when that financing comes through “voting with dollars” (where citizens give government vouchers to candidates), PAC advertising will target citizens for this new kind of vote. Advertisements are very good at getting votes for candidates, that's why reform matters. So imagine candidates who are supported by the biggest independent PACs also getting the most public financing, but with new unwarranted credibility that comes with small donors. This “solution” will actually make the problem worse.
Given that candidates who get the most funding from wealthy donors will often get the most public financing as well, middle and lower bracket taxpayers will resent subsidizing these candidates. And of course, wealthy taxpayers will resent tax funded subsidies to any candidate. Thus, without true reform, distaste for public financing will become almost universal.
Relying on public financing, even with matching funds, will be labeled by conservatives and many moderates as the "typical knee-jerk liberal approach to throw taxpayer money at the problem until it goes away". The smarter approach restricts campaign financing competition before asking taxpayers to finance campaigns.
Most legal “money laundering” will be impossible to stop. Money is donated to third parties where it is pooled with other donations. They then give money from the pool to several PACs that support candidates. Once the money is in a pool, the visible trail of interest is broken as each donor claims their contribution is not “earmarked” for a candidate, but is instead given to “make America better” or to “offset operating costs” of the group (which frees other operating costs to be contributed to candidates). This is likely how foreign interests make contributions today and how political parties now operate. Cash is liquid, that’s what makes it cash. There is no way, even if each of these groups are required to report their donors, the public can follow these threads of interests.
The interests of contributors are not often apparent. Government contracts and subtle changes in the law can deliver significant benefits to contributors, but the public is in no position to understand why. Small alterations on one procurement criterion, who sits on a selection board, an esoteric banking regulation, or a technical environmental standard about chemicals that only scientists understand, etc. can have a huge impact on profits. Learning who could benefit is a big chore. The public doesn’t have the time.
Even with more transparency, 1) reporters have to find conflict of interest, 2) understand the technical aspects, 3) tie it to the contributions, 4) find some evidence that the interest was communicated, and 5) report it well in popular media. Then the public has to A) follow and care about this complex story, and B) be sufficiently skeptical of the well polished response from the candidate and contributor. All of this actually happens every once in a while today, and it may happen a few more times with more transparency. But for every instance it does, there are likely scores of circumstances where it never will.
The existence of independent political action committees to help a candidate and the identities of their contributors carry no stigma for candidates. By law (such as it is), candidates have no relationships with these PACs today. By saying they never accepted these contributions, and are in fact powerless to stop them, they claim to have no obligation to return a favor to donors.
But why bother making this argument since most modern candidates are so confident there is no stigma, they openly organized and gathered contributions for these “independent” PACs before announcing candidacy.
Even if there is a surge of concern among voters, the backing from large donors for candidates will never permanently acquire the cultural stigma of an issue like racism (for example) because in-and-of-itself, the appearance of conflict of interest is not overtly evil.
The campaign money itself is the best inoculant for the bad publicity that might come from taking the money. A good thirty-second ad can cast just enough voter doubt about a complicated conflict of interest news story. And an ad does not have to be truthful or demand nearly as much attention.
From sheer volume, each contribution gets lost in the crowd. The unfortunate common refrain among Americans is, “they all do it” which is another way of saying, “I can’t consider a candidate's conflict of interest because they are all the same”. If this is not totally true, it is true enough to make more transparency merely verify general voter cynicism.
There are too many other issues to consider. Conflict of interest is just one factor of many that voters need to think about. Given that “they all do it” (per above) and conflicts are almost never clear-cut even under the light of more transparency, other issues will carry the day (which is actually how elections are supposed to work in the first place). And money that helps candidates frame their positions on these more salient issues is more valuable than the bad publicity that comes from taking it.
Declaring corporations to be noncitizens will have no impact on the contributions of wealthy citizens. In addition to the substantial contributions they make today, corporations will simply shift funds to individuals to make contributions.
Declaring corporations to be noncitizens would carry many other legal ramifications with potential harm to commerce. Businesses must have legal standing in court to protect their ability to own property, have contractual relationships (where both parties have legal rights in the eyes of the law), etc. While many could argue that impairing these other rights is not the intent, there would be no clear winner in the public debate about whether this is true. Worse yet, some advocates may declare (out loud) that actually is the intent because corporations are said to be "immoral entities by nature". This will make the fight bigger than campaign finance reform and unwinnable if Americans believe it is motivated by a broader (hidden) agenda.
Transparency requirements, alternative funding sources, contribution limits and declaring corporations to be noncitizens will have no impact on rich candidates funding themselves.