Wealthy donors have always had an outsized influence in our democracy, but misguided jurisprudence, like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has opened the floodgates for mega donations and corporate spending in our elections.
Spending on political races has skyrocketed, and running for office has never been more expensive. The 2016 election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history with almost $6.5 billion spent. As a result, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from mega-donors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races.
This gives a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office and, often, what issues they decide to talk about. In 2016, fewer than 400 families gave more than half of all of the money raised in the presidential race. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Our democracy is supposed to be based on the principle of one person, one vote.
Ultimately, we need to overturn Citizens United and make other systemic changes if we want to get big money out of our elections. But large-scale changes like these take time, public pressure, and elected leaders who are committed to making it happen. That’s why we’re researching and advocating for small donor empowerment programs, that will bring power back to the people.
These programs match contributions of ordinary people with public funds. Candidates access these funds when they opt into the program and refuse to take large and corporate contributions. This means anyone with enough public support can run for office, those candidates can raise enough money to be competitive, and they will be answerable to their constituents, not a handful of mega-donors and corporations.
Maryland PIRG is working to establish small donor public financing in communities across the state to give everyone a voice in our elections and keep big money out. We lead the Fair Elections Maryland campaign, a coalition of good government, local, environmental, and other advocacy organizations. We've helped pass small donor programs in Montgomery County, Howard County and Prince George’s County, and working to establish a program in Baltimore City now that voters have approved a constitutional amendment. Now we're working with the Counties to ensure their programs are properly funded and implemented, working with other counties to move forward, and building support for a state small donor program Montgomery County's program was in effect for the first time for the 2018 elections. To participate, candidates must reject contributions over $150 and money from corporations. As of the campaign finance filings in January, a Maryland PIRG analysis found:
Candidates who had qualified received nearly twice as many donations from Montgomery County residents than those not participating.
Those not participating received only 8 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150, while those participating received more than 90 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150.
By the June primary, more than half of all candidates, over 30 total, participated in the program. Ultimately, 22 qualified for the program — candidates from both parties and from a wide range of backgrounds who were able to run competitive campaigns based on support from the communities, not large donors.