Professors at Northwestern and Princeton just released a joint study declaring U.S. democracy as we know it officially passé, with "economic elite domination" the new normal. The report's authors found that policies supported by these elites and by organized business interests were significantly more likely to become law than those they opposed. It also found that the preferences of "mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence" and make essentially no difference to a bill's fate.
Rather than curl up in a fetal position and cede the fate of our democracy to those with the fattest bank accounts, our organizations are taking action. We believe public financing of elections has enormous potential to transform our democracy and to help ordinary Americans regain our voices in the political sphere.
A bill working its way through the Montgomery County Council will be a superb start here in Maryland. Under the proposed program, candidates for council and county executive raise low-dollar donations from individual donors in their district to qualify for public funds. Once a candidate meets the threshold to qualify, donations of $150 or less are matched with public funds, with smaller donations receiving a higher match. In exchange, candidates agree to turn down donations larger than $150 as well as those from special interests, including PACs, labor organizations and corporations.
There are numerous benefits to what we call "fair elections." Most important to voters, the cost is minimal — a small fraction of a jurisdiction's overall budget. On average, fair elections cost approximately $2 per year per voter. At the same time, fair elections help get money out of politics and reduce the ability of special interests to influence candidates.
There is an elephant in the room: Thanks to the floodgates of outside spending the U.S. Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, has allowed (most recently in the McCutcheon case, deeming it illegal to cap political campaign donations in aggregate) public financing cannot be a panacea for all electoral problems, even when all candidates in a race opt for fair elections. But fair elections can break the direct connection between candidates and funders, keep candidate spending on an even footing, and refocus incumbents on their constituents and on public policy as opposed to fundraising from big money interests.
Fair elections also improve democracy. Evidence from jurisdictions with small-dollar-matching fair elections programs shows that more people tend to donate to campaigns, including more donors from lower income communities. More people may vote in elections as well. Under fair elections, there are fewer uncontested races. These programs also help a wide variety of underrepresented communities — including women, people of color and those with professions less typical among politicians — to be competitive in elections and to win those elections.
Special interests like corporations and wealthy donors have too much influence in our government. Maryland is far from the exception. In the last statewide election in 2010, special interests spent millions to influence races. Real estate and developer interests, for instance, doled out $3 million. Self-financed candidates gave themselves nearly $3 million. Lawyers and lobbyists contributed almost $3 million as well.
Thankfully, fair elections have broad support from across the political spectrum in our state. In fact, four candidates for governor — one Democrat and three Republicans — have opted to publicly finance their campaigns. But we can and must do more. The Montgomery County Council should act quickly to put in place a strong fair elections program as a model for other local jurisdictions. When the General Assembly reconvenes in 2015, it should act to expand fair elections beyond the gubernatorial race to other candidates for statewide office, such as comptroller and attorney general, as well as races for state senate and delegate. They should also ensure our gubernatorial fair elections program allows candidates to be competitive and is fully funded.
We must do more to shift the focus of campaigns away from big dollar, wealthy donors and back to everyday people. During this election cycle, we encourage voters just like you to ask the candidates where they stand on the issue of fair elections. With democracy as we know it hanging in the balance, there may be no more important question posed in 2014.
Kate Planco Waybright is executive director of Progressive Maryland, and Jennifer Bevan-Dangel is executive director of Common Cause Maryland. Together, they have formed the Fair Elections Maryland campaign: http://www.fairelectionsmd.org. Their emails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.