Empowering voters in Howard County

Op-ed: Even though Question A passed, the fight to empower Howard County voters isn't over.

The results of this year's election will keep the political pundits busy for months to come. While the presidential race has absorbed much of the media's attention, there is an important story in the outcome of small campaigns throughout the country that have revealed Americans' deep interest in making governments more accountable to — and representative of — everyday people.

In Howard County, voters demonstrated this by voting "yes" on Question A and passing a ballot initiative that will empower regular citizens to run for office, where before only those with deep pockets or deep-pocketed friends could run successfully. After years of setbacks on money-in-politics issues at the Supreme Court, the citizens of Howard County made their voices clear: Enough is enough.

The Citizens' Election Fund approved by Howard County voters will help tear down barriers to running for office and ensure that Howard County residents have the access to their elected officials that they deserve. In establishing citizen-funded elections, Howard County has joined communities across the nation that are passing reforms to strengthen democracy.

Even though the Question A win is incredibly exciting, the fight to empower Howard County voters isn't over. By voting for Question A, Howard County residents established the foundation for the Citizens' Election Fund, a small donor matching system that will amplify the voices of county residents over wealthy special interests. But now that voters have spoken, the County Council must finalize the program's finer details and begin the funding process to ensure that it is viable for use in future election cycles. Luckily, we have a model next door in Montgomery County, which established a small donor matching system in 2014.

Looking to Montgomery County and the various jurisdictions around the country that have enacted similar programs, Fair Elections Howard has put together recommendations to ensure that Howard's Citizen Election Fund is as effective as possible. Among those recommendations are qualification requirements that allow candidates from any party to participate so long as they show a viable level of community support — ensuring responsible use of taxpayer funds while allowing candidates without access to rich donors a chance to be heard. Additionally, an independent committee composed of volunteers appointed by the County Council and county executive can make funding recommendations for the program to ensure the program is funded for qualifying candidates.

Further, we recommend an open and transparent deliberation from the council to ensure every voter's right to know how these issues are being addressed as the policies are solidified. We recognize that not every Howard County voter supported the Citizens' Election Fund, but we hope that those who were skeptical of the program are a part of this process going forward. We heard you while we volunteered at polling stations, made calls and knocked on doors — and we encourage a robust public process for finalizing the legislative recommendations that will allay those concerns.

The Citizens' Election Fund is an investment in the vibrancy of our democracy — it will incentivize candidates to reach out to regular constituents as opposed to a handful of LLCs and developers. It will engage more Howard County residents in the political process, as voters realize that they once again have a real impact on candidates and policy. All for less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the county budget.

The diverse coalition of organizations that helped pass fair elections in Howard County will continue to press the City Council to adopt these recommendations and hold members accountable to the will of voters. That coalition includes Common Cause Maryland, the Democracy Initiative, Progressive Maryland, Maryland PIRG, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and 30 other local organizations and small businesses.

We may never agree on everything, but most of us agree on this: The power of wealthy special interests on our political process, drowning out the voices and concerns of regular voters, must stop. To our excitement, Howard County voters have made the first steps in combating that problem. We urge the County Council to capitalize on this moment to pass a strong bill to empower those voters and hope that county residents of all stripes participate in the process.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel (jbd@commoncause.org) is executive director of Common Cause Maryland. Taylor Smith-Hams (Tsmith-hams@wearimpact.org) is a Maryland PIRG democracy organizer.

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