U.S. taxpayers shunning $1 checkoff for elections ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- One of the brightest spots of the 1992 presidential election, beyond the outcome if you were a Democrat, was the turnout. For the first time since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, voter participation at the ballot box took a sharp upturn, from 50.1 percent in 1988 to 55.24 percent. That figure, and the Ross Perot phenomenon, were widely hailed as signs of a rebirth of voter interest and trust in the electoral process, after all the years of growing public apathy.

Well, voters had a chance on Tax Day just past to put their money on the line to demonstrate that rebirth. They could have demonstrated that the 1992 experience restored their confidence in how we elect our presidents by checking off the box on their income-tax returns saying they wanted one dollar set aside to finance the 1996 presidential campaign. But don't bet on it. Checking off is something they have been failing to do in sharply declining numbers since 1980. In returns for that year, 28.7 percent of filers checked off the box; in 1991 it was down to 17.7 percent.

This performance, plus the fact that disbursements from the fund are indexed for inflation but the checkoff remains at one buck, has raised the prospect that the presidential campaign fund -- now down to only $4 million after paying out a total of $175.3 million to all qualified 1992 candidates -- won't have enough money in it to pay for the 1996 campaign.

Under the fund that has existed since 1976, the expenses of the parties for their conventions and for their nominees' general election campaign are picked up by Uncle Sam, provided they eschew private contributions for that part of the campaign. And qualified primary candidates get money to match certain of the private contributions they receive. The fund's rules provide that the conventions get their cut first, then the fall campaigns, then the primaries.

Projections by the Federal Election Commission that administers the fund indicate that there will be a shortfall of at least $75 million for the 1996 campaign. That means, the FEC says, there will be enough money only for the conventions and part of the general-election expenses of the nominees but none for the qualified primary candidates. If so, the lid will be off receipt of private contributions and the whole purpose of the law, to minimize the influence of special-interest money on presidential selection, will have been sharply eroded.

The threat isn't a new one. In early 1990, the commission warned that there wouldn't be enough money to pay for the 1992 campaign. But, because inflation dropped and candidates didn't DTC start raising money until later in the cycle, the fund barely managed to pay all the legitimate 1992 bills. Nevertheless, Democratic Rep. Al Swift of Washington proposed that the checkoff amount be raised to $3 -- an idea that got nowhere.

The FEC is now urging Congress to do something to rescue the fund, without specifying an amount. Another idea would be to index the checkoff amount to inflation, that is, to have it rise just as the disbursements do as inflation goes up. But, unless more Americans over the next four years decide that the process is worth the small amount in the income-tax return checkoff, whatever it is, the system is headed for oblivion.

The Clinton administration, in its early indications of campaign reforms it wants, has focused on ending "soft money" -- unrestricted funds that go to state and local parties but inevitably have an impact on presidential campaigns. An aide to Swift says increasing the checkoff amount is "a viable option" in the Clinton plan, but if it isn't included Swift will consider reintroducing his proposal.

The 1992 presidential election turnout was a hopeful sign that Americans are turning back to the political process after 30 years of declining involvement.

But, at the present one-dollar rate, the roughly 30 million Americans who checked off would have to swell to about 75 million to solve the problem, or about three-quarters of all those who voted in 1992.

That seems much too much to expect, so salvation of the system, if it is to come, will be up to Congress.

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