In our democracy, the depth of your pocket should not dictate the volume of your voice. Unfortunately large campaign contributions, which few can of us afford to make, have undue influence over who can run for office and the issues they discuss.
Our campaign finance laws are under assault and the Supreme Court has decisively ruled against restrictions on spending levels and corporate electoral spending. In effect they have created an opportunity for us to use a carrot instead of a stick.
Maryland PIRG believes the carrot can be the small donor incentive programs which provides matching funds for small donors if the candidates don’t take large and corporate contributions. This serves the dual purpose of reducing corporate and mega donor campaign spending and re-engaging the community in the electoral process. Our recent congressional elections saw the lowest turnout since World War II.
Yesterday, two Maryland Counties made significant progress in their efforts to put citizens back in the drivers seat of their democracy:
- In Montgomery County, the Government Operations Committee recommended adding $4 million to the budget for the Fair Elections Fund after County Executive included $1 million in his budget. Councilmembers Navarro, Reimer, and Katz unanimously supported the reccomendation which came from an independent commission established to reccommend funding for the program. Montgomery established a small donor matching program in fall 2014 to get big money out of local elections and empower small donors.
- In Howard County, the Council voted 4-1 to send a charter amendment to the ballot to establish a “citizens’ election fund,” the first step in establishing a small donor matching program in the county. The resolution, sponsored by Councilmembers Jon Weinstein and Jen Terrasa also drew support from Council President Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty. Now, Howard County voters will vote to authorize the fund through a ballot initiative in November.
In a small donor system, candidates for County Council or County Executive who turn down large contributions and contributions from special interests can receive limited matching funds for small contributions from their district. Candidates must qualify to participate in the program by showing strong support from citizens in their district.
Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes has authored similar legislation, the Government By the People Act, for congressional elections. And Senator Paul Pinksy has introduced a similar program for Maryland General Assemble offices.
There is no doubt that national eyes are on these proposals and programs in Maryland. By putting small donor incentives into action in Montgomery County and Howard Countt, the public will get to see the effectiveness of the program, building the support and track record we need to pass state and federal reforms.
Democracy works best when members of the public are engaged. There’s no doubt that our democracy is in a perilous state. But we have an incredible opportunity to take local action to put our country on track to fix our broken campaign finance system.
State Director, Maryland PIRG; Director, Stop Toxic PFAS Campaign, PIRG
Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Emily has helped win small donor public financing in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County. She has played a key role in establishing new state laws to to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms, require testing for lead in school drinking water and restrict the use of toxic flame retardant and PFAS chemicals. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working. Emily lives in Baltimore City with her husband, kids, and dog.