“Big money” – the large donations that come from a few mega-donors and special interests – dominates current American politics, shaping everything from who runs for office to a candidate’s ability to communicate their message to the public. Traditional campaign financing favors those with money or access to money, and people of color, women, low income folks, young people, and immigrants are often left out.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Around the country, cities, counties and states are taking action to fight back against large donors’ dominance of politics. One such effort is the Fair Elections law adopted in Montgomery County, Maryland, which provides candidates for county-level positions with limited matching funds if they agree to accept contributions only from small donors.
The programs goals include encouraging greater participation, reducing the influence of large donors, and enabling more residents to be able to run for public office.
This report analyzes the fundraising data from the 2018 county elections, the first election in Maryland to use a small donor matching system. Overall, the small donor matching system was largely successful in achieving its stated goals. Our review of the data concludes that:
1. Small donors accounted for a significantly larger portion of the fundraising for candidates in the program.
Candidates who qualified for the matching program raised 98% of their money in small contributions ($150 or less) and matching funds compared to 3% for candidates who did not participate.
2. The average donation was dramatically smaller for qualifying candidates.
Candidates qualifying for the program received an average contribution of $86 compared to $1,145 for non-participating candidates.
3. Individual donors participated at a higher rate when candidates participated in the small donor program.
Candidates who qualified for the program on average received 96% more contributions from individuals than candidates who did not participate in the program. (850 vs 434)
4. Candidates running for county council seats were able to use the small donor system to run competitive races.
Once you add matching funds, the average contribution for candidates participating in the program was similar to the average contribution for candidates accepting large contributions. ($306 for qualifying vs $292 for non-participating)
The evidence suggests that the small donor program worked on many fronts. Other counties, cities and states should look to Montgomery County as an example of how to take effective and substantial action on campaign finance reform.