Filing Fees and Election Costs

September 2, 2011

A reader writes in to ask:

How much are candidates charged to be on the ballot? Do they pay a percentage of the campaign contributions or [a fee] for the cost of processing their run for president, senator or congress, governor, mayor, and other elected positions in the way of voting equipment expenses? If not, why?

Ballot access requirements vary by state. Ballot Access News, published monthly by expert Richard Winger, breaks down the state-by-state signature or registration requirements for presidential candidates. I’m not sure as to filing fees but I haven’t heard of special taxes that go beyond recouping a fraction of the cost of running the election. For the most part, these are paid for by taxpayers. Elections are expensive: nationally the cost of running elections is probably over $1 billion. Recovering all that cost from candidates could prevent all but the wealthy and well-connected from running for office. (In some cases, however, parties consider paying for primaries.)

A contrasting example, though, is the British system, where candidates for Parliament pay a £500 fee to be listed on the ballot. This “deposit” is returned in full if the candidate receives at least 5 percent of the vote.

The reader goes on to suggest setting up a fund similar to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which has a line on the IRS 1040 income tax form taxpayers can dedicate $3 of their taxes to the fund. She asks why a similar Debt Buy-Down Fund couldn’t be set up, using the revenue to reduce the federal debt. The reason is that the $3 presidential election check-off simply redirects tax revenue, rather than generating more. Such a fund would neither increase revenue nor reduce spending, so it would have no impact on the deficit.

Alternatively, the federal government could copy many states, which list various contribution opportunities on their state income tax forms. For example, on the Maryland income tax form, taxpayers can donate additional funds to Chesapeake Bay and Endangered Species Fund, the Developmental Disabilities Waiting List Equity Fund, and the Maryland Cancer Fund. For now, if you want to donate extra to the federal government, you can send it here or here.

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