At the very top of your tax return is a promise from the Internal Revenue Service. If you check the box that gives $3 to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, that decision "will not change your tax or reduce your refund." Does checking the box increase your taxes or not?
That all depends on what you mean by your taxes. The IRS is not lying when it says your personal tax burden will not increase by $3. But the money--in 1999 the fund collected $61 million--has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is the vast pool of general tax revenues made of everyone's taxes. Think of it this way, by checking off the box you help decide how much tax money doesn't go to some other program. (And no, you can't choose which program.)
As a cautionary note to the current campaign-reform debates in the Senate, in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt proposed public financing of elections as a way of eliminating corruption. That idea became law with the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. In 1972, individual taxpayers could designate that $1 go to a presidential campaign fund. But it wasn't until 1976, after the law was expanded in the wake of Watergate, that America had its first publicly funded presidential campaign. And politics has been clean, uplifting, and corruption-free ever since!
Either because people don't believe the IRS when it says the check-off will have no effect on their taxes, or because people have concluded they don't want their presidential campaigns to be quite so uplifting, the number of people who contribute to the fund has been decreasing for about 20 years. In 1980, about 28 percent of taxpayers chose to designate to the fund; in 1999, just under 12 percent of taxpayers checked the box. The Federal Election Commission, which administers the fund, has been threatening since the late 1980s that the fund was heading toward insolvency. In part this was because the amount of money given to the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the general election was initially set at $20 million each, to be indexed to inflation. While the cost of campaigns went up, the contributions to the fund were not keeping pace. This was remedied in part by a tripling of the check-off amount to $3 per taxpayer in 1993. In the last presidential campaign, both Bush and Gore received about $67,600,000 for the general election. The Reform Party's Pat Buchanan got $12 million. But no third party will qualify for federal funding in 2004 because no third party candidate got 5 percent of the popular vote, the threshold necessary to get general election matching funds in the next presidential race.
Explainer thanks Ian Stirton of the Federal Election Commission. For more on the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, see this FEC Web site.