In a panel discussion at Georgetown University Law Center last night hosted by DC Attorney General Karl Racine, Catie Kelley, State & Local Reform Program Director at the Campaign Legal Center, spoke about successful campaign finance models the District of Columbia can use to strengthen civic engagement.
District government has had its fair share of corruption scandals in recent years – including its last Mayor, Vincent C. Gray, whose aides received jail time for their part in an illicit “shadow campaign.” The city council is now considering numerous legislative fixes to overhaul its campaign finance system, aimed at ensuring that wealthy donors and special interests do not drown the voices of every day voters in our nation’s capital.
Some of the top concerns that District residents express about the current system include: the use of money orders for large campaign contributions, eliminating the revolving door between government employees and private sector jobs, and dark money contributions.
The panelists, which also included Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, were in agreement that the District government had a responsibility to put protections in place to prevent outright corruption, and at varying degrees, believed that the perception of pay-to-play in District government needs to be addressed.
Kelley discussed the pay-to-play legislation introduced by Attorney General Racine earlier this year and reminded panelists that the federal contractor contribution ban was upheld by the D.C. Circuit in 2015.
One of the solutions discussed was public financing, which both Kelley and Mendelson expressed support for. Public financing has had a positive impact on civic participation in states like Maine. As Kelley explained to the audience, one of the primary benefits of Maine’s system is making it possible for candidates to run who never would have been able to raise enough money without public funds. Many of these candidates have run successful campaigns with public funding and went on to have a positive impact in state government.
Public financing programs increase the importance of small donor contributions and encourage candidates to work for a higher volume of small donations – rather than a small volume of large donations - involving a broader coalition of citizens in the electoral process.
These factors, combined with strong campaign disclosure laws, ease of ballot access and high voter turnout, lead to the recognition of Maine as the top-ranked state out of 51 (including the District) in the Center for American Progress’ Health of State Democracies report, published in 2015.
Other cities and states have had similar success with public financing, including New York City’s Matching Funds Program and Connecticut Citizens’ Election Program, detailed in CLC’s report on actionable campaign finance reforms: Blueprints for Democracy.