Another Win Likely for Public Financing of Elections

Small donor matching programs are gaining steam — and could lower barriers for both voter and candidate participation

October 25, 2018

A third Maryland county looks set to approve public financing for local political candidates. It would be the latest victory for a reform that can boost the political influence of ordinary Americans as both donors and candidates.

The Prince George’s County Council passed a small-donor public financing bill by a 5-to-4 vote Wednesday. If signed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who has supported public financing measures in the past, the bill would go into effect in 2026.

Candidates who participate in the Prince George’s County program would receive a multiplied match from public funds for any contribution of $150 or less that does not come from family members. Participating candidates cannot accept donations greater than $250.

The Brennan Center has testified in support of a small-donor matching system in Prince George’s County, and has a long record of supporting public financing programs in jurisdictions across the country. 

The momentum is growing for small-donor public financing: Maryland’s Montgomery and Howard Counties, along with the District of Columbia and Suffolk County, New York, have all recently passed similar measures. Next month, voters in Baltimore will consider a ballot question to authorize a small donor matching system. And New York City has had a public financing program in place for nearly thirty years — one that has largely been considered a success. Voters will consider a ballot measure meant to strengthen the New York City system this fall.    

Public financing systems can help voice the concerns of ordinary Americans

Big money donors and special interest groups have outsized influence in U.S. elections. This can prevent people who aren’t independently wealthy and lack access to wealthy donors from running for political office. “Public financing is an important reform that can enable everyday Americans to run for office,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “It also leverages the power of a small donation and lowers the barriers for ordinary people to participate in the political process by contributing what they can.”

Public financing programs can empower a more diverse group of citizens — both candidates and voters — to participate in the political process. This is critical because of the disproportionate role of white and male donors in our political system. In jurisdictions with public financing systems, candidates are also changing the way they run their campaigns. These systems encourage candidates to engage more with their constituents instead of spending all of their time on fundraising efforts.

“People are feeling really pessimistic these days about the exorbitant wealth pouring into politics,” said Zdanys. “But cities, counties, and states are all making efforts closer to home. We should take lessons from these efforts and build on them in more jurisdictions.”

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock.com)