On Tuesday, Montgomery County Council unanimously enacted a public financing bill that will both encourage participation from small donors in the county and allow civic-minded individuals to run for county office without needing big contributions. Starting in 2015, the county will match small donations from in-county donors for candidates who opt in to the program, demonstrate local public support, and agree to accept only individual donations between $5 and $150.
The matching funds are stepped to encourage contributions from the greatest number of donors. For example, as the County explains:
Matching public dollars for County Executive candidates would be $6 for each dollar of the first $50 of a qualifying contribution received from a County resident, $4 for each dollar for the second $50 and $2 for each remaining dollar received up to the maximum contribution.
So, if an in-county donor contributed $150 to a participating candidate for the county executive office, the candidate would receive $600 in matching funds. But, if four donors each gave only $25, the candidate would still receive an additional $600.
New York City employs a similar matching program, which has been very successful in increasing the numbers of people contributing to campaigns, as well as the diversity of the donors and elected officials. A study of the 2009 city elections found that small donors could be found in almost 90% of the city’s census blocks—about three times the rate of participation in the 2010 state assembly elections, which did not have a matching program. And the neighborhoods in which the city donors lived were much more racially and socio-economically diverse than the neighborhoods of the individuals who contributed to the state assembly races. Additionally, these trends have led to a city council that better reflects the diversity of the city residents. For example, minority representation on the city council rose from 41% in 1990 to 55% in 2013. Further illustrating the enhanced diversity of elected officials, in 2013, the first African-American woman won an election for citywide office. And, when elected officials mirror the diversity of their constituents, there can be a number of benefits such as gains in public trust.
Moreover, public financing programs encourage candidates to reach out to their constituencies—not just wealthy donors—and can reduce corruption. They also can make elections more competitive.
Already, twenty-five states and a number of municipalities have implemented public financing schemes while a similar program has been introduced in Congress. The growth of such programs can be a vital bulwark in the efforts to encourage participation in elections and raise the voices of ordinary citizens in the face of the Roberts Court’s hostility to reasonable campaign finance regulations that combat the influence of big money in politics.
Residents of Montgomery County took an important step towards a more inclusive democracy that privileges the voices of all of its citizens, not just those of wealthy interests.