John Sarbanes, a Democrat, represents Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District in the House.
Last November, Howard County voted to fight back against big-money politics and return power to the people. The passage of Question A cleared the way for the enactment of a bold new system of citizen-owned elections. Now it’s time for the Howard County Council to bring this game-changing reform across the finish line.
On Monday, the County Council will vote on a measure to officially launch Howard County’s citizen-owned election system. The new program — which has been endorsed by Maryland PIRG, Common Cause Maryland, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, the NAACP and the Howard County League of Women Voters — will enable candidates for County Council and county executive to power their campaigns with grass-roots support and small donations.
The council’s proposal is straightforward. If a candidate for local office in Howard County forgoes large donations from political action committees, wealthy special interests and corporations and instead builds a fundraising network of small donations from local residents, then those contributions would be matched from the citizen-owned election fund. Connecting to the grass roots will allow council members and county executives to better channel the will of the people and advance policies that put the public’s interests — not special interests — first. This kind of system would also give everyday voters a greater voice in government and encourage more people to become engaged in the political process.
In addition, because access to deep-pocketed donors would no longer be a primary qualification for public office, Howard County’s citizen-owned election system would empower a more diverse group of citizens to step forward, run for office and serve their communities. This would bring an infusion of new energy and ideas into government and make it more representative of the people of Howard County.
The benefits of citizen-owned elections don’t stop at the county’s border. Similar to Montgomery County’s clean-elections system, Howard County’s proposal has a chance to become a model for the rest of the nation, inspiring cities, counties and states to pursue reform. And if we can bring clean elections to more jurisdictions across the United States, then we can build momentum for federal reform, too.
In Congress, I wrote and introduced the Government by the People Act (H.R. 20), a bipartisan bill with more than 150 co-sponsors and backed by more than 50 national membership organizations. H.R. 20 would help reduce the power of wealthy special interests in Washington and return power to the American people, where it belongs, by implementing a citizen-owned election system similar to the proposal in Howard County. In today’s political climate, the Government by the People Act faces several hurdles. But having examples to showcase, including the system being developed in Howard County, would send a powerful message to members of Congress that citizen-owned elections are a viable and potent antidote to the ills of big-money politics.
Across the country, Americans of all political stripes have vented their frustration with the corrosive nature of big money in politics and with the undue influence that wealthy and well-connected donors have over our government. Howard County has an opportunity to lead the charge for citizen-owned elections and become a model for state and local jurisdictions around the country that want a return to government of, by and for the people.