A style of campaign finance reform brewing in state and local politics, known as the small-donor revolution, is being discussed seriously by the D.C. Council, largely because of recent actions by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Bowser has not been a champion of campaign finance reform. As a council member, she helped quash a pay-to-play proposal that would have banned campaign contributions from government contractors. Yet she campaigned for mayor on the promise of a “fresh start” from the pay-to-play scandal of the prior administration.
After Bowser was elected, her close advisers exploited a loophole in the District’s campaign laws and created FreshPAC to promote her agenda. The political action committee accepted unlimited contributions from real estate moguls and other businesses bidding for government contracts. Public outcry made the mayor shut down FreshPAC. Recently, Bowser even said she favors closing the loophole, though she still thinks FreshPAC was a good thing and that its message simply got distorted.
A small-donor campaign finance bill, the Citizens Fair Election Program Amendment Act of 2015, would provide a 5-to-1 public fund match for each private campaign contribution up to $100. Any D.C. resident who made a $100 campaign contribution to a participating candidate essentially would be giving $600.
Candidates participating in the public financing system first demonstrate broad public support by gathering a certain amount of small contributions from individuals who live in the District. Once qualified, candidates would receive a lump sum of public funds to continue the campaign, agree not to accept contributions in excess of $100 and receive a 5-to-1 match for those contributions.
This is a small-donor public financing system that displaces big money in our elections by amplifying the voices of average citizens. Small-donor matching programs are now in place in 11 localities, from New York City to Montgomery County to Los Angeles.
New York City provides a 6-to-1 match on contributions of $175 or less. In 2013, more than 90 percent of candidates in the primary election and 75 percent in the general election participated in the small-donor public financing system.
This is pretty much the trend across the board. A 2015 study by the Campaign Finance Institute concluded that with small-donor public financing systems, “more races are contested, voters pay more attention to races lower down on the ballot, small donors can become much more important, and candidates can be given incentives to bring more diverse donors into the system.”
More important, when we change to whom the candidates turn for campaign financing, we change to whom our elected officials are accountable. Yes, it’s that big of a deal, which is why similar small-donor public financing programs are now under consideration in California, Hawaii, New Mexico and New York and in many localities across the country.
For incumbent elected officials, the news is good here, too. Though small-donor public financing programs fundamentally change the donor base and increase the competitiveness of elections, these programs have not been shown to measurably increase the odds of incumbents being defeated at the polls. Incumbents, like newcomers to politics, share the benefits of changing donor pools from the wealthy special interests to average citizens.
For Bowser, this might be a good time to support campaign finance reform. The mayor swept into office on the heels of the previous administration’s pay-to-play scandal, giving hope for citizens not to have their voices drowned out by the wealthy dominating D.C. politics and government. This is a critical juncture in that road.
The writer is a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.