I was elected to be an at-large member of the D.C. Council in 2012 after running to reform our elections and to help restore faith in our politicians and our political processes. We’ve made progress in this area, but more work remains. Taking greater steps to make our democracy more representative and inclusive of all D.C. residents would help ensure that those running for office can better serve their constituents. Unfortunately, there are big-money interests that don’t want to see this happen.
Americans for Prosperity, an extreme right-wing, Koch brothers-funded think tank, criticized the Fair Elections Act of 2017, elections reform legislation that I introduced earlier this year with eight of my council colleagues.
Here’s the truth: Fair elections are an essential step to empowering historically underserved communities and addressing long-standing racial inequities. The bill I introduced multiplies the donations of small donors with a five-to-one public financing match, making small donations politically powerful. Fair elections is not just about who donates; it’s also about amplifying the voices of those who have been pushed aside by big money in politics. This is about who participates in the political process and who has a say in policy decisions.
The Fair Elections Act of 2017 is about fulfilling a promise I made when I first ran for office that our elections should value voters over dollars and that residents’ voices matter more than wealthy donors’. Fair elections mean that even the smallest donations can have a big impact, especially when communities organize and donate together.
Once this program becomes law, it will help make our democracy more inclusive and balance the scales of power in favor of the people who live and vote here, primarily people of color and women.
According to new census data analyzed by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, while “incomes of DC households remain on an upward trajectory, longstanding racial disparities widened between 2015 and 2016, and people of color are doing economically worse not only than their white counterparts, but also compared to the year before.” Black median household income is less than a third of whites’ in the District and has actually fallen since 2015. The poverty rate for our black residents is higher than pre-recession levels and has increased for Latino residents, too.
Simply put, black families in the District overall have less wealth and income than white families — and therefore have less ability to give to political candidates. This helps explain why black D.C. residents are underrepresented year after year in political donations. As a recent study by Demos found, white individuals make up a disproportionate amount of donations to mayoral and council races compared with the white proportion of our population. Meanwhile, small donors are more likely to be people of color or female.
Additionally, the money that currently funds our local elections is disproportionately from wealthy, white donors, many of whom do not live or vote in the District. In a world where money wins elections, that means they are getting far more say in their elected representation than black or Latino residents. That’s wrong, but Fair Elections puts us on a path to fix it.
The goal of the Fair Elections legislation is to ensure that voters — not big donors or outside interests such as the extreme right-wing Americans for Prosperity — set the agenda for our elections and the issues we address as elected officials.
I, along with a majority of the Council, want to invest more in our democracy through Fair Elections so we can be an example to the nation.
David Grosso, an independent, is an at-large member of the D.C. Council.