The Fair Elections Program was designed to amplify the voices of small-dollar donors in local elections. When a D.C. resident contributes money to a local candidate participating in the program, the Fair Elections Program provides a 5-to-1 match to bolster their contribution. In other words, a $10 donation is matched by $50 in public funds, yielding the candidate $60. With the Fair Elections Program, D.C. joins a handful of other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, in providing matching funds to amplify the voices of everyday residents in local politics.
In a new report from the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, we show the impact of this public financing program in its inaugural cycle. From 2018 to 2020, the number of Washingtonians contributing to a local political candidates nearly doubled. Candidates collected more donations from small-dollar donors — those giving $25 or less — than nonparticipating candidates. As local candidates fanned out across the city to spread their message, they drew more and more Washingtonians into the political process.
But not every candidate participated in the Fair Elections Program, and our report shows stark differences in the fundraising coalitions between candidates who participated in the program and those who did not. To start, participating candidates collected more donations from small-dollar donors than nonparticipating candidates. In last year’s D.C. Council races, a staggering 30 percent of donors to candidates participating in the Fair Elections Program were small-dollar donors, but less than 10 percent of donors to nonparticipating ward candidates gave small sums of money.
With the generous 5-to-1 match, participating candidates often ended up with more money to spend on their campaigns. In the at-large race, the average donation to a nonparticipating candidate was $250, but the average donation to a participating candidate was $63. When matched 5-to-1 through the Fair Elections Program, this $63 donation yielded the candidate $378.
Though the program brought more donors into the political system and increased the participation of small-dollar contributors, it certainly didn’t solve all the problems of local democracy. Most glaringly, the program failed to drum up many donors from neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8.
And though the program succeeded in drawing a diverse slate of candidates to enter local politics, it might have created confusion for voters. In 2020, there were 24 candidates vying for an at-large seat on the council. Though a large slate of candidates provides choices for voters, it can also cause confusion. Trying to sort out the policy positions of every candidate — and then casting a ballot for a single one — is onerous to citizens.
Finally, although the program sought to refocus fundraising on a candidates’ constituents, most ward candidates in the 2020 elections gathered the majority of their donations from outside their wards.
As D.C. gears up for the 2022 elections, we should consider several changes to improve the Fair Elections Program.
In our report, we suggest that the council consider higher matches for within-district donations for ward candidates. This would incentivize council candidates to raise money from their constituents — and, in doing so, emphasize the importance of face-to-face contact between candidates and the people they aim to represent.
We encourage the consideration of a supplemental voucher program, modeled on the one pioneered in Seattle, to provide “democracy dollars” for citizens to spend on the candidates of their choice. This type of innovation is likely to boost participation in the most marginalized neighborhoods of the city, ultimately giving all residents an opportunity to participate.
And finally, the council should seriously consider the legislation for ranked-choice voting recently introduced by Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large). Ranked-choice voting allows voters to express multiple preferences in the election, a particularly important innovation when citizens face a large slate of candidates.
Ultimately, democracy is about making sure the voices of all citizens are heard — not just those with large sums of money to give to elected officials and candidates. The Fair Elections Program brings D.C. a step closer to that promise. By amplifying the voices of everyday residents in D.C. politics, it is an opportunity to disrupt politics as usual and ensure that every D.C. resident has representation in the Wilson Building.