The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to approve the Fair Elections Act of 2017, which establishes a voluntary public financing program for political campaigns for District elections.
The program will provide limited public funds to candidates who pledge to solicit small-dollar contributions from District residents and forgo contributions from corporations and special interest groups.
In the first of two votes, the full council voted unanimously to advance the bill, which was co-sponsored by nine of the council’s 13 members. D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and several advocates also supported the measure.
Proponents of the bill say it will help lessen the influence of wealthy corporations in city elections and levels the playing field for small, individual contributors and candidates who do not have personal wealth or access to affluent donors.
“I believe strongly that public financing of elections is one of the most vital tools to combat the corrupting influence of outsized campaign spending,” said Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who authored the bill.
Though not required, the program will be open to candidates for mayor, attorney general, city council and the State Board of Education. Any candidate who accepts the program’s requirements, including contribution limits and the threshold of small-dollar contributions, will be eligible.
“This public financing system incentivizes candidates to spend more time meeting with residents and constituents, empowers residents of ordinary means to have a meaningful ability to compete for elected office, reshapes our donor class to be more inclusive and representative of the entire population of the District of Columbia, and combats the perception of pay-to-play politics,” Grosso said.
Once a candidate participates in the imposed contribution limits and raises the minimum amount of small-dollar contributions — both of which vary by contest — they will receive a grant based on contest, with the maximum of $160,000 for mayor.
Qualified small-dollar contributions, not including those from donors who aren’t D.C. residents, will also be matched with public funds at a rate of 5 to 1.
While there will be no cap on how much a candidate can raise, there will be a cap on the amount of matching public funds based on contest.
More than two dozen jurisdictions nationwide have public financing programs in place, including Montgomery and Howard Counties in Maryland.
If passed, the program will go in effect for the 2020 election cycle. It is expected to cost $5 million of the city’s nearly $14 billion annual budget.
“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 Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who also co-sponsored the bill.
Mayor Muriel Bowser will not fund the legislation if it is passed, WAMU-FM reported.
“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 paying for candidate robocalls, pole signs or donor receptions,” said Bowser spokesperson LaToya Foster.
But many council members said it’s imperative that the proper funds for the program are allocated.
“We must fund the Fair Election Act of 2017 in the upcoming budget, even if the council has to find the money ourselves,” Gray said.
The council will likely hold its second vote on the measure at its February legislative meeting.