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Another Election Winner — Public Financing

In cities across the country, voters backed the most powerful reform available to address big money in politics

November 12, 2018

Voters in last week’s election backed measures in Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere aimed at expanding access to voting and ensuring fair maps — victories that have reverberated nationwide. But those weren’t the only democracy reforms that won at the polls. In Baltimore, Denver, and New York City, voters overwhelmingly voiced their support for public financing of campaigns.

Public financing is the most powerful reform available to address the troubling trends of big money in politics. It lifts up the voices of regular people and frees candidates from dependence on wealthy special interests. Public financing not only elevates the role of the constituent in funding campaigns but also increases participation from traditionally disenfranchised communities. In addition to increasing the diversity of donors, public financing creates opportunities for more people, including those without wealth or professional connections, to run for office.

Voters in Baltimore passed the Fair Election Fund Charter Amendment with just over 75 percent of the vote. The new law directs the mayor and city council members to design the structure of the program, since the amendment does not prescribe how candidates will receive their funding. Baltimore is joining the ranks of many of its neighbors — Howard County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Washington, D.C. — all of which have enacted public financing in the last four years.

And in Denver, voters passed a ballot measure to establish public financing for local elections with 69 percent of the vote. Referred Question 2E, or the Democracy for the People Initiative, breaks down financial barriers for Denverites to get involved in local politics, whether that means donating to candidates or running for office themselves. As one editorial put it, “with public financing, our governing institutions reflect their communities, passing the kind of laws that prioritize the public interest over the special interests.” In addition to creating a small-donor matching system for local campaigns, this measure also requires the disclosure of dark money, prohibits corporate donations to candidates, and lowers contribution limits.

New York City also voted to strengthen and update its popular public financing program. In 1988, the city introduced its small-donor matching system, which has served as a model for the recent wave of cities implementing public financing. Last Tuesday, New York City voters voiced their support for the system, by voting 80 percent in favor of a ballot measure to strengthen the system’s small-donor boost by expanding the matching grant ratio from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1.

These new programs join a growing trend of local governments enacting public financing in their elections. In addition to the advancements in D.C. and a string of Maryland counties, Berkeley, California implemented its small-donor match system for the first time this year. The program is starting strong, with 12 of the 14 candidates for City Council joining in, several of whom have commented that the system is already encouraging participation from a broader cross-section of the community. 

Seattle is another recent public financing success story. The city was the first to enact a system of vouchers to help fund elections. During the program’s debut in 2017, every Seattle voter received a $25 voucher, which they could give to local candidates. The data shows that the program has inspired increased participation from young people, low- to middle-income voters, and people of color. 

Last week’s election proved that these successes are encouraging other local governments to implement this reform. Voters are worried about the crisis of big money in politics and eager for a proven reform to make campaign finance work for all voices in the electorate. Tuesday’s election will not be the last time we see this happen. What’s next? State legislatures and Congress will no doubt introduce new bills next year. And of course, local efforts continue. In February 2019, voters in Albuquerque will have the opportunity to pass a ballot measure that would create a voucher system to publicly finance their local elections. 

(Image: BCJ/Shutterstock)