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Analysis

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)