Admit it, you’ve stared at that checkbox for the presidential election fund and you have no idea what it really means… It’s one of the great mysteries of the form 1040.
First of all, you have to understand that the checkbox has nothing to do with your actual tax calculation. If you check “you” or “spouse” at the checkbox, three of your tax dollars (or six dollars if you check both boxes) are directed to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. It doesn’t change your actual tax due – or refund, if applicable. You’re merely directing where your tax dollars go.
So do you check it or not? It’s not a terribly popular choice these days. When the box was first introduced, nearly 30% of all taxpayers opted in; in 2007, the last year for which data is available, less than 10% of taxpayers checked the box (you can download the brackets and a report here as a pdf).
Perhaps one of the reasons that taxpayers elect not to check the box is that few taxpayers know where those tax dollars go. The money actually goes into a fund and every four years, it’s distributed to qualified candidates and national party committees for use in Presidential elections. As you can imagine, the money tends to go to the major political parties, meaning Democrats and Republicans. Other parties, such as the Green Party, may qualify for funds only if they can get at least 5% of the vote.
The fund has been around since the 1970s (well, technically since the 1960s but they quickly put the kibosh on it). It was created by Congress in an effort to convince condidates to reduce their dependence on large contributions from individuals and groups. Of course it doesn’t work. In fact, candidates may now refuse to accept public funds for their candidacy (as Obama did) which sounds noble at first until you realize that it’s because they don’t meet – or don’t wish to meet – the rules established by Congress. Chief among them is not to accept certain private contributions and to not exceed certain spending limits (horrors!).
But don’t worry about those candidates who appear to refuse public funds. They’re doing just fine. In addition to private funds, they may still benefit from public funds, just not directly. Political parties who receive public funds can spend public money on behalf of candidates (whew).
For all of those candidates who publicly eschew the fund, many are doing just fine. According to the FEC, in 1992, the last year for which data is available on their web site, 11 primary candidates received a total of $42.7 million in matching funds. In addition, that same year, each major party received $10.6 million to conduct its Presidential nominating convention (public grants of $16,820,000 went to each of the major parties for their conventions in 2008). Yep, those conventions you see on TV are funded at least in part from that little checkbox.
And really, the major candidates that year: Clinton, Bush and Perot? They’re just poor millionaires. They *needed* your $1 for campaign advertising, campaign staff, campaign travel, fundraising and other campaign expenses (insert eye roll here). That’s not a typo: the fund was $1 until 1994, when it was upped to $3.
In fact, many candidates have received tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. Over the course of the fund, five candidates have received more than $20 million each. They are: Bill Clinton (D), Ronald Reagan (R), George H.W. Bush (R), Robert Dole (R) and Pat Buchanan (R).
There’s lots of food for thought here. All judging aside, here’s what you really need to take away: checking the box does not increase the amount of tax you owe, nor does it decrease any refund to which you are entitled.