The “Fair Elections Amendment Act of 2017
What is the Fair Elections Program, and Why is it Important?
The bill establishes a voluntary public financing program for political campaigns for District of Columbia elections. It provides public dollars to candidates who pledge to forgo campaign contributions from corporations, special interests, and traditional political action committees, and instead solicit small-dollar contributions from District residents.
- Wealthy and corporate contributors have an outsized influence in the District’s elections through their ability to contribute large amounts of money to campaigns. However, wealthy and corporate contributors do not represent the District’s diversity — and they also often have different policy agendas than the average voter. Just the perception of such influence can discourage political engagement.
- The Fair Elections Program levels the playing field and amplifies the voices of District residents by increasing the influence of “small-dollar contributors” through public matching funds. Candidates can focus their time on connecting and engaging with their constituents, instead of “dialing for dollars” and attending expensive fundraisers. In order to be successful under the Fair Elections Program, candidates will need to spend more time at community meetings, in living rooms, and knocking on doors – the small-dollar contributor becomes the focus.
- The program also opens the door for non-traditional candidates, such as non-incumbents and diverse and grassroots candidates who do not have personal wealth or access to a network of wealthy contributors.
- But why should we spend taxpayer dollars on elections? The program is an investment in our democracy and in the fiscal accountability of our elected officials to taxpayers rather than to wealthy contributors and corporate interests. Taxpayers already spend millions of dollars each year on the District’s elections, including on election equipment, ballot printing, and poll workers. There are also tight controls in the bill to guard against unchecked public matching and candidates who aren’t viable, such as the threshold requirement for the number and total value of contributions to qualify and the matching funds cap.
How Will the Fair Elections Program Work?
Who can participate? The Program is open to candidates running for Mayor, Attorney General, Councilmember (Chairman, At-Large, and Ward), and the State Board of Education (At-Large and Ward). Candidates are not required to participate. Any candidate can be eligible if they accept the Program’s requirements, including the contribution limits, and they meet the qualifying threshold of small-dollar contributions.
What are the contribution limits? Participating candidates may accept “qualified small-dollar contributions”, defined as the total of all contributions to a candidate from an individual District resident in an election cycle that doesn’t exceed:
- Mayor: $200 (currently $2,000 under the traditional system)
- Attorney General and Council Chairman: $200 (currently $1,500)
- At-Large Councilmember: $100 (currently $1,000)
- Ward Councilmember and At-Large State Board of Education member: $50 (currently $500)
- Ward State Board of Education member: $20 (currently $200)
How many “qualified small-dollar contributions” does a candidate have to raise to qualify? Before qualifying for the Program, candidates must raise a minimum amount of money from “qualified small-dollar contributions” from a minimum number of “small-dollar contributors” (individual District residents – not corporations):
- Mayor: $40,000 from 1,000 small-dollar contributors
- Attorney General: $20,000 from 500 small-dollar contributors
- Council Chairman: $15,000 from 300 small-dollar contributors
- At-Large Councilmember: $12,000 from 250 small-dollar contributors
- Ward Councilmember and At-Large State Board of Education member: $5,000 from 150 small-dollar contributors
- Ward State Board of Education member: $1,000 from 50 small-dollar contributors
What’s a “base grant”? Once a candidate qualifies, they become a “participating candidate” and receive a lump-sum base grant payment. The base grant is key to ensuring candidates who may not be individually wealthy or well-connected have start-up money to begin a viable campaign. The amounts are:
- Mayor: $160,000
- Attorney General: $40,000
- Council Chairman: $40,000
- At-Large and Ward Councilmember: $40,000
- At-Large and Ward State Board of Education member: $10,000
What’s the “matching rate”? Qualified small-dollar contributions (but not contributions from non-District residents) are matched with public funds at a matching rate of 5:1, but only after the candidate qualifies. This means a $50 max contribution for a Ward Councilmember would be matched with $250 for a total contribution of $300. Disbursement of matching funds will be made by the Office of Campaign Finance no more than 5 business days after the receipt of a report from a participating candidate.
Is there a cap on how much a candidate can raise? No, candidates can raise as much money from qualified small-dollar contributions (and contributions from individual non-District residents that comply with the contribution limits) as they like. However, there is a cap on matching public funds, which is calculated based on past expenditures for each office and changes over time. The cap is generous enough to ensure participating candidates are competitive. A candidate may continue to raise additional qualified small-dollar contributions after exceeding the matching funds cap, but they’re not matched.
- For Mayor, Attorney General, and Council Chairman: 110% of the average expenditures of the winning candidates for that office in the prior four election cycles
- For At-Large and Ward Councilmembers and At-Large and Ward State Board of Education members: 110% of the average expenditures for all winning candidates for that office in the prior two election cycles (so all Ward Councilmembers are averaged together over two cycles)
Are cash contributions allowed? Currently, 1 out of every 10 District residents is unbanked, so the bill allows participating candidates to accept cash contributions up to either the contribution limit for that office or $100, whichever is less, and these funds can be matched.
When will the program be up and running? The program will be in effect for the election cycle beginning November 7, 2018, or when it’s funded, whichever is later.
- Are there similar programs in other jurisdictions? Yes, there are more than 25 jurisdictions across the country with public financing programs in place, including our neighbors, Montgomery and Howard Counties, Maryland.
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