POLITICIANS FROM both political parties complain about the ever-increasing amount of time they have to spend raising money. Constituents wonder whose interests — theirs or those of major donors — are served by elected officials. But for all the talk about money in politics, there is no movement on the national level toward solutions. By contrast, across the country this fall voters will have a chance to express their opinion and, in some cases, approve substantive state and local reforms.
Voters in four states — California, Missouri, South Dakota and Washington — will vote on statewide ballot measures dealing with abuses in the campaign finance system. The measures range from support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United (California’s Prop 59) to establishing limits on campaign contributions for state and judicial candidates, committee and political parties (Missouri’s Amendment 2). On the ballot in South Dakota is what’s come to be known as the Anti-Corruption Act (Initiated Measure-22) that would put limits on donations from parties, political action committees and lobbyists, require more transparency and institute other reforms. Voters in Washington state will vote on two referendums: Initiative 735, calling for the overturn of Citizens United, and Initiative 1464 with a menu of changes that includes some public financing and a bar on large campaign contributions from lobbyists and public contractors.
Voters in several local communities also will vote on campaign finance and ethics issues. One notable ballot initiative in Howard County would amend the county charter to allow for public financing of future candidates running for county executive and council. Question A would create the option of a public matching program for candidates who show broad support and agree to limit their donations to small donors who are Howard County residents.
The measure is patterned after a small-donor program established in Montgomery County in 2014. It resembles national legislation that has been pushed — sadly without success so far — by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). Howard’s effort is unusual in that public funding programs rarely go as stand-alone measures to the voters but instead are usually packaged with other reforms. Supporters hope passage would set a precedent that would inspire other counties, in Maryland and elsewhere.
These initiatives, if successful, would show a growing demand to free elections from big money and special interests. That in turn might spur some response in Washington.
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