Plutocracy is on the rise in the United States. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC allow corporations and wealthy individuals to donate unprecedented amounts to political campaigns, giving them megaphones in the public square.
There is a way, however, to amplify the voices of people who lack bulging bank accounts so that they can be heard as well — without using the highly problematic and Sisyphean route of amending the Constitution or waiting years for the Supreme Court to reverse its damaging decisions. Notably, it’s happening in Montgomery County, the home county of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Last fall, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a revolutionary public-financing law that provides the nation’s most powerful incentives for small-donor participation in campaigns. The new system is the first public-financing system for local elections in Maryland and the region.
Beginning with the 2018 elections, candidates for county council and county executive who meet a significant threshold of small contributions from county residents and agree to accept only individual contributions of $150 or less can qualify for matching public funds. To participate, candidates cannot accept funds from corporations, unions, political action committees or other groups.
Each dollar of the first $50 contributed by a county resident to a qualifying candidate for county executive is matched with $6 of public funds, turning a $50 contribution into $350. A second $50 contribution to an executive candidate is matched at 4-to-1 and a third $50 at 2-to-1, turning a $150 contribution into $750. Qualifying council candidates will receive $4 of public funds for each of the first $50 from a resident, turning a $50 contribution into $250. A second $50 contribution is matched at 3-to-1 and a third $50 at 2-to-1, turning a $150 contribution into $600.
The larger match for the first $50 is unique to Montgomery’s public financing system and will propel candidates to seek small donations from county residents.
County executive candidates can receive up to $750,000 in public funds, at-large council candidates up to $250,000 and district council candidates up to $125,000 per primary and general election.
Recognizing this Supreme Court’s proclivity to overturn campaign finance reform laws, including public financing provisions, the county council drafted the measure to withstand court scrutiny. Candidate participation is voluntary, there are no spending limits, candidates can raise an unlimited number of contributions of up to $150 from individuals and there is no “trigger mechanism” that would enable publicly financed candidates to receive more public funds if a privately funded competitor outraises them or if an independent group spends to help their opponents.
Montgomery’s public financing system will increase the influence of people who don’t have lobbyists or deep pockets but who, as residents, foot most of the county’s bills. It will expand opportunities for people who are not wealthy — or funded by people or interest groups that are — to run viable campaigns for office. And it will increase people’s confidence in the integrity of their government.
For that to happen, the county council must approve sufficient and timely appropriations to the Public Election Fund so that candidates will choose to participate from the start, including in any special elections before 2018 to fill vacancies. Based on the results of a 2014 study, Common Cause Maryland, the state chapter of the national organization that has been a driving force behind every major campaign finance reform since the Watergate scandal, recommends that the council appropriate $2 million each year to provide sufficient public funding for the 2018 elections.
The council recently approved $1 million to get the fund started. Next year, an advisory committee appointed by the council will begin making annual recommendations regarding the amount of money the fund needs.
“Everyone is organized but the people,” said John Gardner, when he founded Common Cause in 1970. The Supreme Court’s decisions eliminating campaign finance reforms passed by Congress to prevent the corrupting and distorting influence of huge campaign contributions in elections and on public policy, combined with extreme gerrymandering by governors and state legislatures and primaries limited to registered voters of one party, have disempowered voters, reduced the number of competitive general elections and pushed candidates away from the political center. In contrast, Montgomery’s public financing system empowers the people by amplifying their voices above the plutocratic din.
The writer is a former member of the Montgomery County Council and a former executive director of Common Cause Maryland. He was the chief sponsor of Montgomery’s public financing law.