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Baltimore County issues final recommendations for fair public election system in new report

The Baltimore County Fair Election Fund Work Group recently released its final report to help create the county’s first public campaign financing system that will match donations for candidates who run for local offices.

In March, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, introduced the work group, with hopes of a public financing option for candidates who run for County Council and county executive. The fund is scheduled to go into effect in the 2026 election cycle.

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Julian Jones, the council chairman and a Democrat, leads the work group, and is joined by Councilman David Marks, a Republican; Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr; Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Joanne Antoine; Phyllis Panopoulos of the Baltimore County League of Women Voters; and Eric Washington, a community member.

Samay Kindra, who chaired the “Yes for A!” Baltimore County Citizens’ Election Fund campaign, also has a seat in the work group. The campaign refers to Ballot Question “A” during last year’s election, which asked voters whether they wanted to bring fair elections to the county.

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“I thank all the members of our work group for their commitment to this concept and for developing thoughtful recommendations which will inform our efforts to pass legislation formally establishing a public financing system for Baltimore County elections,” Olszewski said in a statement.

The work group has spent the past six months developing a comprehensive set of recommendations, detailing how the county’s public campaign fund will work, including how candidates can qualify for public funding, the limits and thresholds related to matching fund limits, and how much funding campaigns can receive from the program.

Candidates will have to qualify for the program by demonstrating a wide base of support through funding and a specific number of contributors, according to the report.

County executive applicants must raise at least $40,000 from at least 500 contributors. Council applicants must raise at least $10,000 from at least 125 contributors.

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Contributions or loans up to $12,000 may be donated by the candidate, their spouse, or immediate family members, the report states.

Funding also includes a matching system to allow candidates to run competitive races. The report mentions a cutoff threshold per election i of $750,000 for county executive candidates and $80,000 for council candidates.

Olszewski, who pushed for a public financing option before taking office in December 2018, said it will equalize access for diverse candidates.

“Baltimore County residents deserve a Fair Election Fund to help empower a more diverse group of candidates, level the playing field, and strengthen our local elections for years to come,” he said in a statement.

In Olszewski’s first month in office, he announced a package of reforms to improve trust in county government, including a proposed charter amendment that passed the County Council with bipartisan support in 2019.

The initiative was overwhelmingly embraced by voters from all political backgrounds during the 2020 election, Marks said.

“It’s a good government measure that aims to level the playing field for all candidates, which was backed by a significant number of Baltimore County residents and support from Republicans, Democrats and Independents,” he said.

Antoine, a Haitian American political organizer and strategist for Common Cause Maryland, hopes to see more women and minorities run for local offices.

“Fundraising is one of the top barriers for running for office, especially for women, so hopefully this allows more of them to be able to throw their hat in the ring and get the funding that they need to run competitive races — diverse candidates as well,” Antoine said.

Antoine also said a similar election fund system has been successful in other Maryland jurisdictions. Baltimore County will join the State of Maryland, Baltimore City, and three counties — Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s — in offering a public financing option for candidates.

The Olszewski administration will introduce legislation based on the recommendations in the coming months, according to the report.

The Baltimore County Fair Election Fund Work Group’s full report is available is here.

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