Enacted in 2014 and designed by then-Council member Phil Andrews (D), the system allows County Council and County Executive candidates to fund campaigns from small individual donations and earn matching funds while also prohibiting the reliance on political action committees or corporations.
In its first election cycle, the system received praise, with Andrews saying he thinks “it worked well,” and “allowed more people to mount viable campaigns.”
“It certainly increased the amount of small donors in County campaigns,” he added.
“I found it to be a good system,” said Council member Sidney Katz (D-District 3), who won reelection while receiving the most funds of all the candidates seeking a district seat. “Overall … I was very pleased that I participated in the public financing system.”
Written into the County Charter (Chapter 16, Article 4), candidates seeking to qualify for matching funds must gather a minimum number of contributions from within the County to meet a minimum threshold.
County Council candidates running to represent one of the five districts must receive a minimum of $10,000 from at least 125 contributions, while at-large candidates must receive $20,000 from at least 250 contributions. County Executive candidates qualify if they receive $40,000 from 500 contributions.
Candidates who qualify for matching funds can accept individual contributions up to $150 and are prohibited from accepting contributions from political action committees, corporations, unions, or political party central committees. Candidates are also prohibited from accepting loans from individuals other than the candidate or the candidate’s spouse.
Contributions up to $50 are quadrupled for County Council and matched 6-1 for County Executive candidates, with the ratio decreasing with greater amounts up to $150. The maximum amount a candidate can raise through the system is $750,000 for County Executive, $250,000 for County Council at-large seats, and $125,000 for County Council district seats.
The system limits each individual to a $150 donation in a four-year election cycle.
The system does not include elections for the Board of Education, Sheriff, State’s Attorney, Register of Wills and Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Del. David Moon (D-District 20), who often sponsors electoral reform legislation in Annapolis, called the program “a great success,” adding that many of the advocacy aims materialized in the form of more candidates and competitive races.
During the 2014 primary and general elections, four candidates – three Democrats and one Republican – ran for County Executive, while 11 candidates – six Democrats, four Republicans, and one Green – ran for the County Council at-large.
By comparison, in 2018, seven candidates – six Democrats and one Republican – ran for County Executive, while 38 candidates – 33 Democrats, four Republicans, and one Green – ran for County Council at-large.
For the County Council district races, 24 candidates ran in 2018, compared to 17 in 2014.
Moon said one of the main takeaways from the system was that it “reduced the appearance of impropriety” with respect to campaign contributions and allowed grassroots candidates to mount competitive campaigns without having to rely on large donations.
Moon also predicts potential conversations about either amending the County system or having a potential state financing system to include a signature requirement to address large candidate fields and allowing the same donor to contribute in both primary and general elections. He added that the debate is “very healthy for democracy.”
Moon reiterated that he did not support artificially reducing candidate fields but noted the 33-candidate field in the County Council at-large primary created “practical concerns” about hosting debates and forums.
Defeating Ben Shnider by 1,293 votes in the County Council District 3 Democratic primary, Katz echoed Moon’s comments, raising questions on repeat donor limitations in both the primary and general elections.
Having served as the mayor of Gaithersburg, Katz said a public financing system could work at the municipal level but noted that municipal elections require fewer expenditures.
Robin Ficker qualified for the system but said the requirement for candidates, with no primary opposition, to qualify 45 days before a primary is “not logical.”
“If you don’t have primary opposition, why would you be concentrating on raising money 45 days before the primary?” he asked, adding that the candidate should be required to qualify 60 days for the general election.
Ficker, who ran for several federal, state, and county offices, then said the $12,000 personal finance limit made a big difference with the implementation of the system.
“I think that almost everyone in Montgomery County, if they’re running countywide, could afford to spend more than that if they’re serious,” he added.
While he opposes implementing a public campaign financing system at the state level, saying it would only help the Democrats, Ficker said he “thinks” he would support a similar system at the federal level, due to the influence of political action committees.
“There’s such big influence the PACs have, some public financing might level that out,” he said, citing his campaign against Amie Hoeber in the 2016 Republican 6th District Congressional Primary election, in which a super political action committee spent $1.4 million on her behalf.
County Council at-large Green Party candidate Tim Willard said it was “all in all, a good” system but that submission requirements should be “more clear.” He added that the Board of Elections disqualified him due to a submission error.
Willard also suggested that candidates be allowed to raise money across the state.