07/18/2007 10:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Making $5 Count

While political pundits and media gadflies prefer to handicap the presidential race based on a candidate's ability to rake in the most money, a story in the New York Times yesterday went a step further in declaring that some donors aren't quite donor-ey enough.

That's because Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) presidential campaign counted key chain and bumper sticker purchasers as small donors. That $4.50 for a key chain, the story's authors seem to imply, shouldn't count as much as the $2,300 checks and the thousands of dollars bundlers are bringing in to the campaign.

That Sen. Obama is able to inspire a quarter of a million donors who gave a small amount of money is what's newsworthy. With the projected $1 billion presidential race and Senate and House candidates raising record amounts of money for their own races in preparation for 2008, we should be praising candidates' efforts to cultivate small donors.

Rather than devaluing small donors, let's get real and talk about how to give them the most power. After all, even Obama must rely on the big checks not the little ones to raise enough money to run a credible campaign. To end this money chase, we need more attention for a proposal now making its way through Congress - full public financing of elections.

The bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act (S. 1285), was introduced in March by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA). The legislation, similar to a bill in the House, would enact a system of full public financing for Congressional elections modeled on successful systems in place in seven states and two cities.

Under these systems, all voters are on a level playing field. Candidates are able to qualify for public funds after collecting a set amount of small contributions, usually $5. Candidates must also agree to strict spending limits and forgo all private fundraising. No big money donors or check bundlers are needed to give a candidate a financially level playing field and candidates are able to spend their time talking with voters and not locked in a room with a call sheet and telephone dialing for dollars. In 2007, more than 200 Clean Elections officials were sworn into office without owing a single favor to major campaign contributors.

While Sen. Obama's success with small donors is refreshing, nearly three-quarters of all presidential campaign funds in the first six months of this year were still from donations of $1,000 or more, according to a report by the Campaign Finance Institute.

So, let them buy key chains and let them count. But until the $5 checks are the rule and not the exception, our elections will still be focused on donors and dollars over voters and volunteers.