Image by the author.

The DC Council is likely to pass a new bill that will create a public campaign financing program and decrease the influence of major donors. If passed, DC would join the growing number of local and state jurisdictions looking to rein in the influence of money in politics.

Although lobbying is part of any healthy democracy, Americans are generally concerned about the role of money in politics. In DC, as recently as last year Mayor Bowser took heat for the fundraising practices of a soon-to-be-defunct political action committee supporting the mayor. Conversely, politicians often have to spend lots of time fundraising to be competitive in elections, often leaving less time to interact with constituents.

What it does

Councilmembers David Grosso and Charles Allen introduced a bill earlier this year to establish the public financing system, and a super majority of District councilmembers support it. In practice, the bill would match small political contributions with public funds at a ratio of 2:1 before a candidate is on the election ballot, and at a ratio of 5:1 if a candidate makes it onto the ballot. To qualify for the public financing scheme, candidates must also reach a minimum threshold of $2,000 from 100 contributors for District Council candidates and $40,000 from 1000 contributors for mayoral candidates.

The Wilson Building in DC Image by Larry Miller licensed under Creative Commons.

In theory, this public financing system would amplify the influence of everyday voters, and encourage small campaign contributions. The financing scheme would not cover campaigns for Attorney General, Board of Education, or Advisory Neighborhood Commission (the latter of which has a $25 limit anyways).

For reference, the current maximum donations a contributor may make to a campaign in the District of Columbia are:

  • $2,000 for mayor
  • $1,500 for attorney general
  • $1,500 for the chairman of the council
  • $1,000 for an at-large councilmember
  • $500 for a ward-elected councilmember
  • $200 for amember of the Board of Education
  • $200 for a political party officer

If passed, the District of Columbia’s public financing bill would join the ranks of a number of state and local jurisdictions in the United States experimenting with the idea. Currently, 13 states provide public campaign financing for various offices. Maryland, for instance, offers partial public funding for candidates running for governor and lieutenant governor that raise at least 10% of their campaign funds from sources of $250 or less. Current Maryland governor Larry Hogan became the first person in the state’s history to win office with the backing of public funds.

Locally, Montgomery and Howard counties in Maryland have created their own public financing systems. Montgomery’s system has just started, with multiple candidates opting in for the 2018 elections, while Howard’s system takes effect in 2022. Proponents of public campaign financing also point to other developed countries, where the practice is common.

"Democracy vouchers" are another form of public financing

As public campaign financing is still an emerging concept in American localities, cities there are a lot of different systems. In Seattle, the city is experimenting with a more radical system it calls “democracy vouchers.”

There, every registered voter receives four $25 vouchers that they can give to any participating candidate's campaign in city council or city attorney elections. The city then will pay the campaigns a dollar amount equal to the vouchers that they have received. The idea with this system is to empower citizens' voices in local politics, especially citizens who might normally not be able to afford to contribute money to a political campaign.

Seattle's democracy vouchers Image by DarjeelingTea licensed under Creative Commons.

Seattle’s system also aims to curtail overall election spending through requiring that participating candidates limit their overall spending and limiting individual contributions to $500. The chief difference between Seattle’s current system and the proposed DC one is that in Seattle, citizens can contribute to campaigns without spending any of their own money.

Not everyone is convinced

Public campaign financing in American politics is unsurprisingly controversial. Currently, the libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation is suing the City of Seattle on the constitutionality of the democracy voucher program. They argue that the program violates their first amendment rights, by using taxpayer money to support candidates that they do not support. On the other hand, Alan Durning of Sightline, who helped write the law in Seattle, on the other hand, is confident that the courts will rule in favor of the vouchers, pointing out that courts have upheld the legality of other public financing systems throughout the country.

There is also the question of how effective public campaign financing schemes are. The Center for Competitive Politics maintains that public financing does little to discourage corruption in elections, while diverting tax dollars away from other programs.

District Council chairman Phil Mendelson also expressed concern that candidates who accept public money may face a disadvantage versus those who do not due to the spending limits they agree to. Indeed, the National Conference of State Legislators found that a number of candidates in various state gubernatorial races were able to outspend their opponents by not participating in a public matching program.

A bold experiment

Having citizens engaged in public policy is a vital component of a working democracy. How to achieve that goal, however, is a more complicated issue. Montgomery County, Howard County, and possibly the District of Columbia will provide interesting cases in upcoming elections as to whether providing public funding for local campaigns can clean up elections and give voters greater voices. Seattle’s even more ambitious system might even be a model for the future if it is successful.

What do you think of public campaign financing in local elections?

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.