A “laboratory for democracy”! That is the phrase used by Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes to describe New York City’s public election funding program during his address to the “American Elections at the Crossroads” forum at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City on July 22nd. Since Montgomery County established a very similar small-donor matching fund program for candidates with the passage of Bill 16-14 on September 30, 2014, it is hoped that that same description can someday be applied to Montgomery County.
New York City’s program was established more than 27 years ago (the multiple-match concept was added in 2001) in the aftermath of a scandal involving bribes to city officials. Reducing the dependence on political contributions from so called “big money” interests was considered to be essential in reducing political corruption. As Frederick A. O. Schwarz, another speaker at the forum and a former city official tasked with developing the New York City system put it: “There is not much difference between an illegal bribe and a large legal campaign contribution in terms of expectations on the part of the contributor”.
Montgomery County isn’t waiting for a scandal to institute its small-donor matching fund program for candidates for County Council and County Executive in advance of the 2018 elections. Polling has consistently shown that, nationwide, more than 90 percent overwhelmingly agree that campaign financing needs to be reformed, especially in light of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission. The program established under Bill 16-14, quite similar to New York City’s successful program, allows candidates who rely on small-donor donations to qualify for matching public funds. In exchange, candidates must agree to turn down all large contributions, including those from special interest groups. Although, to conform to recent Supreme Court rulings, there is a cap on the county match, there is no cap on overall expenditures, thereby allowing candidates to continue to raise and spend small-donor donations as needed.
Some key provisions of the Montgomery County program include limiting donations to $150 or less and only donations of $5 to $150 from residents within the county will qualify a candidate to receive the match from the county. The match is scaled to each office with the County Executive match being 6 to 1 for the first $50, 4 to 1 for the second $50 and 2 to 1 for the final $50 from a donor. For the County Council, the match begins at 4 to 1 for the first $50, 3 to 1 for the second and 2 to 1 for the final $50 from a donor.
The primary goal in establishing a system based on small donations with a multiple match is to change the dynamics of money in our politics by incentivizing grassroots fundraising. As Congressman Sarbanes pointed out at the forum, when candidates or, for that matter, elected officials seek campaign funding they go to the source. For big money, they have to focus on the “big money” special interest groups; for small dollar donations, they have to focus on us, the individual voter. That makes a significant difference in whose voice is being heard.
In addition, public funding allows for individuals without an existing major funding source to become engaged in the election process and seek public office. This, of course, is critical to allowing the voices of all segments of our society to be heard.
The experience of the New York City system is encouraging for the prospects of the Montgomery County system. Like the Montgomery County system, the heart of the New York City system is the multiple match, a feature that boosts the impact of small donations. By encouraging candidates to engage with voters early in an election campaign, fundraising and voter outreach efforts have come together. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has stated that, without this system in place, he could not have run for mayor.
According to a post-election report prepared by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, since the enactment of the multiple match in 2001, city elections have seen a steady increase in small donors. Further, the vast majority of candidates participate in the program. In 2009, for example, 93 percent of primary candidates participated and 66 percent of general election candidates participated. Also, according to the report, candidates attribute the city’s high donor participation rate directly to the 6 to 1 match system which, they claim, enables small donors to feel that their contributions can actually compete with big money interests because of the effect the multiplier had on their smaller contributions.
Data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice indicates that “the number of donors has generally expanded after the enactment of the multiple match. Between 1997 (the last election under the one-to-one match) and 2009 (the first election under the six-to-one match) the number of donors who gave to participating candidates grew by 35 percent.”
One important area in which the two systems are dissimilar is the existence of New York City’s Campaign Finance Board. The Montgomery County Council has convened a Public Elections Funds Committee on which I proudly serve and which has been tasked with determining funding needs for the program leading to the 2018 elections. At the risk of sounding self-serving, my concern is that not being an autonomous body, as is the New York City Campaign Finance Board which has final say over funding decisions and which can’t be overridden by either the mayor or the city council, final funding decisions in Montgomery County will be subject to budget constraints, thereby creating the risk of insufficiently funding the program. That may sound reasonable, since the argument against public funding is that there are more important priorities on which the county should focus its attention and its resources. However, Congressman Sarbanes addressed this issue during his presentation by explaining that the needs of the vast majority of citizens are all too often in conflict with the priorities of the ‘big money’ interests. Further, he explained, unless we successfully level the playing field of influence, not instituting campaign finance reform will negatively impact our ability to address our needs, whether education, infrastructure, or transportation, and overcome ‘big money’ influence” and resistance. It is my view that establishing an autonomous Campaign Finance Board with full funding authority will also have the added advantage of preventing the appearance of impropriety of incumbents potentially holding back funding in an attempt to reduce competition.
Most importantly, however, it cannot be emphasized enough how essential campaign finance reform is to stemming our current trend toward staggering income inequality and the associated transition from a democracy to a plutocracy.