HB785: The Maryland Small Donor Incentive Act

By Emily Scarr
State Director

Our democracy is based on the premise that every citizen, regardless of wealth has more or less equal opportunity to influence the actions of our government. Unfortunately, large and corporate contribitions, which few of us can afford to make have undue influence over who can run for office and who wins elections. 

Because of the increasing role of big money in our elections candidates and elected officials are often trapped spending an increasing amount of time fundraising from big donors, giving them less time to hear from and serve their constituents.

Maryland PIRG, as a leader of the Fair Elections Maryland coalition, believes that to restore our democracy and public faith in government, campaign contributions should be limited to what the average American can afford, and candidates should only be able to raise money form the people they would represent. This bill is a step in that direction.

While the Supreme Court has decisively ruled against restrictions on spending levels and corporate electoral spending, HB785: Maryland Small Donor Incentive Act enables candidates to voluntarily reject large and corporate contributions by providing limited matching funds for small donations. This will serve to elevate the voices of small donors and expand opportunities to run for office for candidate who don’t have access to personal wealth or large donors.

These types of programs are popular, effective, and gaining momentum in Maryland and throughout the country. In 2014, Montgomery County became the first Maryland county to establish a small donor incentive program for county races. The program will be in effect for the upcoming election and dozens of candidates have already filed intent to qualify. Our early analysis of the program has found that it is having promising results. For example, small donations accounted for 94% of total fundraising dollars raised by candidates receiving matching funds, versus only 8% for those not participating in the program. 

Howard County finalized their own small donor matching program in July of 2017 after the voters authorized the program on the 2016 ballot. The D.C. City Council finalized theirs last Tuesday, and a program was just introduced in the Prince George’s County Council. Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes is the author of the Government by the People Act, which would enact a similar program at the national level.  

There’s not doubt in my mind that our democracy is in a fragile state, but by creating a small donor matching program, Maryland can lead the country towards a new way to fund elections.

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