The presence of corporate dollars flowing into D.C. elections has corrupted our electoral system and failed our residents. The system has fallen out of balance, and forces with something to gain from political influence have come to badly outweigh the interests of ordinary citizens. The solution is to increase the number of engaged residents who have a stake in ethical leaders. Fair Elections D.C., a bill that I have proposed with council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), can help restore this balance between residents and corporate interests.
It is clear that the moment has come for comprehensive campaign finance reform. It is time to end the culture of corruption that taints our politics and residents’ views of their elected officials. Scandals have become a major distraction in the city, and residents are calling for change both in the way politicians are elected and in the way they govern. By adopting Fair Elections D.C., the District can limit the influence of special-interest donors, give constituents’ everyday concerns more attention and help prevent ethics scandals.
The bill accomplishes this by enabling candidates to qualify for public financing if they agree to limit their fundraising to individual donations of $100 or less. Once they raise $5,000 and qualify for the ballot, candidates could tap into a public campaign fund for use during the primary and general elections, while still raising unlimited small contributions. For each $100 raised, candidates would get an additional $400, giving those who opt to use the public financing system an opportunity to compete against well-financed opponents.
We know that the bill can work. Crafted in consultation with the late Bob Edgar of Common Cause, it is modeled on successful public-financing systems in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. These states have seen positive changes in their electoral systems since adopting reforms. A more diverse group of citizens now participates in the political process, and new candidates are able to run for office who otherwise might have been shut out because of the big-money chase required to compete successfully.
By limiting the influence of big donors, the bill will move ordinary D.C. residents’ concerns to the top of the city’s agenda. Council members won’t have to spend their time talking to wealthy special-interest groups that are looking for a tax break or special treatment. Instead, issues such as jobs, education, affordable housing and other pressing matters will be at the forefront.
Finally, the bill will help prevent future ethics scandals. The status quo for D.C. campaign finance has been the source of far too many of the city’s recent problems. Strong enforcement measures, coupled with campaigns that are funded by a wide range of constituents, will result in politicians who are more accountable to the people.
Still, Fair Elections D.C. is just a first step. Future elections and ethics reforms that we should pursue include open primaries, instant runoff elections, nonpartisan elections, a ban on corporate campaign contributions and other efforts to encourage the engagement of more people in D.C. politics.
This bill is a marker for campaign finance reform. The dollar amounts, how the fund is paid for and other details of the bill will be worked out before a hearing this fall. I will fight for its passage because I know that this legislation can improve our elections system and empower D.C. residents.
The writer (I-At Large) is a member of the D.C. Council.