With a mailbox full of attack ads and too many candidates who are funded by big-donors, corporations and out-of-staters, it’s easy to feel that government doesn’t work for us. But, there is a reason to be optimistic about the future of Baltimore’s democracy.
Last week, the Baltimore City Council cast a preliminary vote to put the Baltimore Fair Elections Fund and commission on November’s ballot. This unanimous vote struck a blow to politics as usual and is step No. 1 toward fixing our broken democracy.
The Baltimore Fair Elections Fund would provide matching funds for small donations to qualifying candidates who reject all large and corporate contributions. This would enable candidates to run competitive campaigns based on support from their communities and reduce the outsized influence of large and corporate donors.
In the last presidential election, just 62 percent of Baltimore City voters went to the polls, the lowest percentage in the state. Many non-voters say they stayed home because they felt like their vote doesn’t make a difference, candidates fail to address their issues or they were generally dissatisfied with the overall field of candidates. Voter attitudes are unfortunate but hardly surprising.
The high cost to run for office limits who is able to do it. Those without connections to deep pockets worry that they won’t be able to compete, and those concerns are warranted. In 2016, winning candidates for Baltimore City Council raised $142,000 on average, a 50 percent increase over the previous election. Barriers like these keep great candidates from seeking office and deny voters real choice. The deck is stacked against those who don’t have access to wealth or donors, and often shuts out women and people of color.
Today, large donors influence who is able to run for office, what issues make it on the agenda and often who wins. Candidates and elected officials are trapped spending an increasing amount of time fundraising from these large donors instead. Most voters don’t have $1,000 to donate or know any millionaires or corporate Political Action Committees (PACs). Democracy has become a playground for the wealthy and special interests.
But let’s imagine a different way: It’s 2024 and Baltimore City’s new Fair Elections Program is in effect, so rather than candidates being funded with big-money special interests from outside Baltimore, candidates start knocking on doors, hosting house parties and meeting one-on-one with community members to discuss what issues matter to them. And when Baltimoreans make a contribution to a candidate — with the $10 or $20 they have to give — the city’s new Fair Elections Fund matches their small-dollar donations. So, unlike in the current system, voters and donors are the same people. No more big checks in backrooms. In this system, it’s the regular people who get heard.
With the Fair Elections program, residents with a vision for a better future can run a competitive campaign with big money candidates — and they can win.
Baltimore City could become part of a growing movement of communities — including Montgomery and Howard counties — leading the way in making our democracy accountable to the people, not wealthy special interests. In New York City, candidates are more likely to come from (and look like) the communities they are representing since the city started providing small donor matching funds for elections. And voter and donor participation is much higher, because people know that their participation matters.
When we have elected officials funded by the many, instead of big money, we all win. Imagine an election without big money, where Baltimore voters are at the center of the campaigns and fundraising, where our elected officials are actually accountable to voters and not special interests, and where the issues that matter most — schools, transportation, affordable housing — get addressed.
Now stop imagining and start asking your Baltimore City Council and MayorCatherine Pugh to give voters that choice. If they approve, the Fair Elections Fund charter amendment would be on November’s ballot for voters to decide whether to establish the fund along with an independent commission to study funding and design for the program. It's time to fund a future that works for everyone.
Jay Hutchins is the acting executive director of Maryland Working Families (Twitter: @GoJayHutchins); Emily Scarr is the director of Maryland PIRG (@emilyscarr).