Government of, by and for the few is not the American ideal. Yet powerful incentives in our political system encourage candidates to cater to the wealthy, to special interests and to the most ideological voters.
Closed primaries shut out registered independents and incentivize candidates to appeal to the most liberal or conservative members of their parties. Gerrymandering divides communities and voters and rigs general elections by creating non-competitive districts. Recent Supreme Court decisions have empowered corporations, unleashed fat cats by eliminating aggregate contribution limits and struck down some public-financing systems.
Although voting has never been easier in Maryland, turnout is declining, perhaps because many people think their votes don’t matter. In Montgomery County, turnout was 17.5 percent in this year’s primary, the worst among Maryland counties, despite competitive races and expanded early voting.
But hope is on the horizon. Through public financing of campaigns, we can empower small donors, increase political participation, push special-interest money to the side, enable more grass-roots candidates to run viable campaigns and elect officials independent of interest groups.
On Sept. 30, the Montgomery County Council, after winning a 13-year battle to secure the needed authority from the state, unanimously approved public funding for county elections. This plan, the first in Maryland and the region, was strongly supported by Common Cause, Progressive Maryland, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Montgomery County Civic Federation, Young Democrats and Progressive Neighbors.
National organizations that advocate for public financing consider Montgomery’s measure a model law because it contains the nation’s strongest incentives for small-donor contributions from constituents, provides ample matching funds, prohibits participating candidates from accepting special-interest money and doesn’t disadvantage participating candidates by imposing an overall spending limit.
Beginning with 2018 elections, council and executive candidates who meet thresholds demonstrating community support will qualify for substantial matching public funds for contributions of up to $150 from county residents.
Public-funding systems must make voluntary participation attractive to candidates. Montgomery’s law is attractive: A $50 contribution to a qualifying council candidate will generate $200 in matching public funds, and a $100 contribution to a qualifying executive candidate will generate $500 in matching funds. This will empower small donors and encourage many more residents to contribute. Because Montgomery’s public funding match is substantially larger for the first $50 from a contributor than for the second or third $50, candidates will have strong incentives to reach out to many constituents to find new small donors.
The maximum a qualifying candidate may receive in public funding is $125,000 per primary or general election for district council candidates, $250,000 per primary or general election for at-large council candidates and $750,000 per election for county executive candidates. Tax revenue will fund the system, estimated to cost $2 million a year.
Candidates who accept public funds can’t accept contributions from corporations, labor unions, PACs, candidate committees or political parties, and they must not accept contributions of more than $150 from any individual in a four-year election cycle. Only contributions from county residents are eligible to be matched.
The key to Montgomery’s public-financing system is that it aligns incentives for candidates with the interests of their constituents. That alignment is essential for achieving representative government of, by and for all.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Gaithersburg-Rockville on the Montgomery County Council. He was the lead sponsor of the county’s public financing law and is a former executive director of Common Cause of Maryland.