League supports small donor empowerment bill for the District of Columbia

Testimony before the Hon. Charles Allen

Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety

RE: Fair Elections Act of 2017 (B22-0192)


June 29, 2017

Good Morning. My name is Alexandra Dickson and I am the First Vice President of the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia. Today, I am sitting in for our President Linda Beebe. 

The League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia supports the Fair Elections Act of 2017, and we urge its passage along with funding mechanisms to ensure effective implementation.

The League’s support for public campaign financing represents the official, consensus views of both the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia, and the League of Women Voters of the United States. 

The League of Women Voters is the premier, most trusted, good government organization in the country.  Our positions come from our membership through bottom-up consensus building.  We are political but nonpartisan.  We advocate for policies and laws but we do not endorse political parties or candidates for office.

The two-fold purpose of campaign finance laws is to protect the voters’ right to know who is spending money to influence their vote and to prevent corruption.  We believe that money in politics should be controlled because it may allow undue access or influence and give an unfair advantage to candidates and spenders. This bill directly addresses concerns that the rise in campaign spending funded by wealthy donors corrupts representative government by downplaying the role of the voters, allowing for unfair competition, and possibly leading to lower voter turnout.

The League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia is a member of the DC Fair Elections Coalition.  Together with more than 70 other organizations we have surveyed DC residents, studied the issues, and become advocates for the bill before you.  Voters get what is going on.  They see the problems we face in the current system.  When League members circulate the petition asking for support for this bill developed by the DC Fair Elections Coalition, the response is, “Sure, show me where to sign.”  DC citizens want assurances that our democracy will not be corrupted by big money.

Public campaign financing is not a new idea, and there is a lot of experience with it. In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt called for public financing of the “proper and legitimate expense of the great national parties.”  The League of Women Voters has supported public financing of elections since 1974.  Public financing has been tested and found to be successful in other cities and states including New York City, Los Angeles, and Connecticut.  In the 2014-2016 biennium, the League of Women Voters conducted a national study of Money in Politics and developed a set of positions that resonate strongly with the proposed bill.  For more on our findings, please see the resource section of this testimony.

Running for office costs money, but money should not be permitted to buy elections.  We want to make it possible for all candidates to have equitable access to funding.  We also know that it costs more to run for some offices than it does for others.  Therefore, we applaud the change in the bill that sets varying maximum limits on matching contributions based on the office.  The qualification requirements range from 50 small donors for a Board of Education Ward seat to 1,000 donors for a mayoral candidate seem appropriate to us. Likewise the maximum contributions per donor that range from $20 for a Board of Education Ward seat to $200 for a mayoral candidate are reasonable. This proposal is an excellent way to involve citizens so that the elections are not at the mercy of big donors. 

We note that any candidate wishing to receive matching funds for small donor contributions must forgo corporate or PAC funds. We recognize that participation will be voluntary; however, we trust that the public pressure to pay attention to small donors will be sufficient to encourage most candidates to seek out the small donor route.

As a country we view it as necessary and appropriate that we spend public money to register voters and to conduct elections.  Public financing of campaigns should be considered in the same category of public expenditures.  Current methods of financing campaigns lead at a minimum to citizen beliefs that their votes don’t count and at a maximum to undue influence of funders in the decisions of government.  We believe that public financing of campaigns will counter these problems.

Locally and nationally, support for a new approach is reaching the level of a mass movement.  You should pass this bill, fund public financing, and ensure the strength of the three agencies responsible for the integrity of our elections and subsequent governance by elected officials.  Passing the bill will not be sufficient.  The Council must also assure that there is ongoing funding for small-donor matching.

Thank you for your attention.