When the public financing program for county elections in Montgomery County, Maryland was implemented for the first time in the 2018 elections, 35 of the 57 county election candidates chose to participate in the program, and of the 35 candidates that participated, 24 candidates qualified for matching funds.
Contributing to candidates is an important means of participating in our political process, but wealthy people are disproportionately represented in the donor base. Public financing creates an incentive for candidates to raise money from their constituents, and as a result, candidates will be required to spend more time engaging with the people they seek to represent.
An analysis by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group found that Montgomery County’s small donor matching program was extremely successful in empowering small donors during the 2018 county elections. In order to qualify for the matching funds program, candidates must have agreed to only accept small donations ($5-$150) and refuse donations from PACs, corporations, other candidates and political parties, and they must have reached a donor and dollar viability threshold.
Candidates that qualified for receiving matching funds received almost twice as many contributions than non-participating candidates and had a greater proportion of small donations make up their fundraising. Qualified candidates raised 98% of their campaign funds from small contributions, and non-participating candidates raised only 3% of their funds from small contributions.
The matching funds program allowed qualified county council candidates to remain competitive in fundraising with non-participating candidates. After including matching funds, the average contribution for qualified county council candidates participating in the program was $306, and the average for non-participating candidates was $292.
Shifting the source of candidate fundraising not only impacts campaigning, but also impacts an official’s behavior once in office.
The source of campaign fundraising prior to entering office is one of the most powerful predictors of future voting behavior by elected officials — making candidates rely more on donations from the people they will serve gives constituents greater power to hold candidates accountable during campaigning and while in office.
Public financing offers a powerful antidote to the influence of super PACs, special interest groups, and the handful of wealthy individuals who often have a disproportionate influence on the actions of elected officials. Localities across the country have taken the initiative to implement public financing systems and have seen similar success in empowering small donors.
Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers program resulted in a donor base that was larger and more diverse than in previous elections. When New York City raised its program’s matching funds rate to 6:1, it led to increases in the number of individual contributors of $250 or less to local candidates, and in the percentage of local candidates’ campaign funds coming from these small donors. Since then, New York City has raised its matching rate to 8:1 with the goal of further increasing the importance of constituent donors.
Maryland has gubernatorial public financing, which Governor Larry Hogan utilized in his 2014 campaign. Neighboring Maryland localities including Howard County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City have approved versions of public financing programs for future local elections, and Baltimore County voters will have the opportunity to approve a public financing program on their 2020 ballot, suggesting that Maryland could lead the way on small donor financed elections.
This post was written by Sheely Edwards, a 2019 CLC Hinckley intern, and student at the University of Utah.