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Land of 10,000 small donors: Minnesota leads in modest campaign contributions

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When it comes to state elections, Minnesota led the country in percentage of small-donor campaign contributions in 2006, according to a new report. But that ranking may be in jeopardy after Gov.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It turns out that the Land of 10,000 lakes is also the Land of 10,000 small donors.

When it comes to state elections, Minnesota led the country in percentage of small-donor campaign contributions in 2006, according to a new report by the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C. In fact, nearly half of all private contributions came from those that gave $100 or less to any one candidate in the state.

“Small donors play an unusually large role in Minnesota’s state elections,” the Institute reported.

Of the 36 states that held legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2006, small donors accounted for less than 10 percent of private contributions to candidates in 20 states, between 10 percent and 20 percent in 12 states, between 20 percent and 36 percent in only three states, and 45 percent in Minnesota.

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The Institute’s Executive Director Michael Malbin, who is also a professor of political science at the University at Albany (SUNY), said that his research shows Minnesota to be a consistent outlier when it comes to small donor participation and even large donor contributions.

“What is important about Minnesota is not only the small donor piece, but the relatively small amount coming from big hitters,” Malbin said.

Only 16 percent of private contributions in Minnesota’s 2006 state elections came from individuals paying $1,000 or more to any one candidate, according to the report.

Average citizens

Why is this significant?

The Institute argues that “Minnesota’s candidates for governor and state legislature are more likely to rely on average citizens, instead of wealthy donors, for campaign funds.”

Logic follows that the more people who are invested in the political process, the better — or at least more diverse — a state’s government is likely to be.

All this is now in jeopardy, however, according to the Institute.

On July 1, Gov. Tim Pawlenty nixed the state’s political contribution refund (PCR) program, which provided rebates of up to $50 per year for individuals and $100 per year for married couples. The $10.4 million fund was intended to promote small donor participation and was the only rebate program of its kind in the country. But in an effort to balance the state budget, Pawlenty eliminated the program along with other unallotments.

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“Eliminating the rebate would remove an important force for democracy in Minnesota government,” Malbin warned in a statement. “The refund promotes greater equality by building up from the bottom. It deserves significant credit for the role of small donors in Minnesota. The PCR deserves to be imitated, not destroyed.”

According to a survey conducted by the Institute, 62 percent of Minnesota donors with household incomes of $40,000 or less said that the rebate influenced their decision to give to the 2006 state legislative and gubernatorial candidates. The same position was taken by 49 percent with household incomes between $40,000 and $100,000 and only $28 percent of those above $100,000. The survey included 687 respondents and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Based on the survey, the Institute says that the fund was a key factor in the participation of low-income donors.

“We are not claiming that the elimination of the program will end small donor contributions,” Malbin said. “But it is an important part of the mix.”