The D.C. Council unanimously passed the Fair Elections Act of 2017 in its second and final vote on the matter Tuesday, but funding for the program still hangs in the balance.
The measure creates a voluntary public financing program for political campaigns where candidates running for public office.
“This is a great day for the District of Columbia and a big step forward in ensuring D.C. residents trust that their voice is the most important part of our campaigns and elections,” said Council member Charles Allen (D- Ward 6), who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and introduced the bill.
Candidates who forgo contributions from corporations and special interest groups and collect small-dollar donations from District residents will receive 5 to 1 match of the small donations. Once a candidate qualifies for the program, they will receive the matched funds as a base grant – the first half being distributed after a qualifying fundraising threshold is reached – the second distributed when they qualify for the ballot.
Advocates of the bill say it will help level the playing field for small individual contributors and candidates who do not have personal wealth or access to wealthy donors, as well as lessen the influence of wealthy corporations on elections in D.C. based solely on their ability to make large contributions.
“More residents will be empowered to participate, more candidates from diverse perspectives will be viable to run to run and candidates will spend more time talking to residents rather than dialing for dollars,” Allen said.
Nine of the Council’s 13 members co-introduced the legislation.
But some stand opposed to the bill, including Mayor Muriel Bowser who said she will not fund the program, set to start in the 2020 election cycle, in her upcoming budget proposal.
It has an estimated $5 million annual cost.
“With so many pressing needs for residents, it is not prudent to divert tax dollars from hiring more police, investing in housing or fixing roads to pay for candidate robocalls, pole signs or donor receptions,” said Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster.
D.C. Fair Elections Coalition, which consists of over 70 organizations, including community groups, advocates, political groups and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, will deliver petitions endorsing the legislation.
“The responsibility for bringing fair elections to D.C. now shifts to the mayor,” the coalition said. “The petitions come from across the District, representing the depth and breadth of support for fair elections.”
Council members say they will prioritize the program’s funding.
“I assure residents that the cost of the legislation is a small price to pay to ensure fair contracting and to restore the public’s full trust in the motivations of our elected officials,” said co-sponsor and Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
“We must fund the Fair Election Act of 2017 in the upcoming budget, even if the Council has to find the money ourselves,” he added.
Others have also called the bill out for being unfair, calling on the Council to expand the offices to receive public campaign financing.
“There is not justice in a bill that primarily funds the campaigns of the people who wrote it and excludes others,” said D.C. shadow Sen. Michael Brown.
Under the act, eligible candidates running for mayor will receive a $160,000 base grant, eligible candidates running for attorney general and seats in the Council including the council chair will receive $40,000 base grants and eligible candidates running for seats on the State Board of Education will receive base grants of $10,000.
However, the District’s “shadow delegates” will not receive a public grant under the program.
“The Fair Election Act of 2017 is not fair because it does not include those who were elected to fight for democracy and equality in the District of Columbia. [The District’s] delegate to Congress, senators and representatives, who fight every day for [the District’s] rights, get nothing,” Brown said.