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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: Shut­ter­