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Baltimore County Council passes Fair Election Fund in bipartisan vote, including spending limits and increased qualifying thresholds
BALTIMORE - The Baltimore County Council has voted 6-1 to create a Fair Election Fund, allowing candidates for office in Baltimore County to run for office using a small donor public campaign financing program. The legislation was introduced by Baltimore County Council President Julian Jones on behalf of County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski and cosponsored by Councilman David Marks. Councilmembers Jones, Quirk, Bevins, Patoka, Kach, and Marks voted in favor of the legislation.
Councilmembers Kach and Jones both proposed controversial amendments that were approved by the Council. The changes to Baltimore County’s program sets it apart from the other existing programs at the local and state level – and could leave participating candidates at a disadvantage, according to advocates. The amendments include a spending cap for participating candidates. After the changes, candidates for Council will not be able to spend more than $150,000 per election, for a total of $300,000 for the cycle if both primary and general elections are contested. Candidates for County Executive will also be capped at $1.4 million per election, or $2.8 million for the cycle.
The Council also opted to increase the qualifying threshold for County Executive, from: $40,000 from 500 contributors, to: $50,000 from 550 contributors. The qualifying threshold for Council was also increased, from: $10,000 from 125 contributors, to: $15,000 from 150 contributors.
“In 2026, thanks to the new Baltimore County Fair Election Fund, candidates will be able to run for office without accepting any large or corporate contributions and instead rely on support from small donors in Baltimore County. We expect this new program will expand opportunities to run for office, lower average contributions, and increase participation in local government. It’s better for candidates, for the community, and for our local democracy,” said Emily Scarr, Maryland PIRG State Director. “We are disappointed the Council voted to add a spending cap because it could undermine the ability of candidates to run truly grassroots campaigns, and encourage traditionally funded candidates to dramatically outspend them.”
“While we applaud the Council for following through on the voters’ demand to establish a public campaign financing program, I am concerned about the changes,” said Joanne Antoine, Common Cause Maryland Executive Director. “The original qualifying thresholds recommended by the Work Group were in line with other jurisdictions and, for the first time candidate, were already difficult to reach. The unnecessary spending cap also leaves participating candidates at a disadvantage when up against a well-funded challenger. It also counters the program's goals of engaging more donors. It’s disappointing and I challenge every member of the Council who supported this change to adhere to these same spending limits during the next campaign. Let’s truly level the playing field so candidates from diverse backgrounds can run competitive races.”
In November 2020, Baltimore County voters supported Question A on the ballot, which amended the Baltimore County Charter to enable the creation of the Fair Election Fund.
Last year, County Executive Olszewski convened the Baltimore County Fair Election Fund Work Group, chaired by Councilman Jones. In September, the Work Group released a final report outlining detailed recommendations for the Fair Election Fund. The original version of the bill included these recommendations. Throughout the process, Councilman Marks, a Republican, championed the need for a small donor public financing program in the County, and provided a conservative perspective in the Work Group.
In order to participate in the small donor program, candidates have to file a notice of intent to make use of the fund, establish a new campaign account, and meet a few conditions:
- They must accept only donations from individuals, of $250 or less.
- They must refuse donations from large donors, PACs, corporations, other candidates and political parties.
- They must meet minimum thresholds for the number of local donors and amount of money raised in order to demonstrate that their pursuit of public office is viable.
- If a candidate agrees to and meets these conditions, they become eligible for limited matching funds for small donations made by Baltimore County residents.
Proponents of the program say it will serve as a counterweight to traditional campaign financing which depends on large and corporate donors. The original version of the bill based on the Work Group’s recommendations would have helped to make elections more inclusive and accessible. According to proponents, the amendments put that in jeopardy and could mute the program's benefits.
In 2014, after authorization from the state, Montgomery County became the first community in the state to establish a small donor public financing system for local elections. Since then, Baltimore City, Howard County, Washington D.C., and Prince George’s County have all established similar programs, not including the cap on spending. Montgomery County ran their first election using the system in 2018, which showed promising results. Both Montgomery and Howard County programs are currently in use.
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