Imagine a private company is hiring new staff, but for 82 percent of the applicants who make it past a first-round interview, the business decides to go with the wealthier applicant. That sounds outrageous, it sounds unfair, and it certainly doesn’t sound like good practice when it comes to hiring the most qualified applicants. But that’s similar to what’s happening in American elections.
A recent Public Interest Research Group analysis of congressional elections shows that in 82 percent of primaries nationwide, candidates who raised more money than their opponents won their election. Candidates for state, county and city races can confirm that access to big money matters equally in local races as well.
Not only does money play a major role in determining who even appears on the ballot in November; it also represents a huge barrier for qualified candidates who want to run for public office but simply don’t have the wealthy connections that would allow them to run a competitive campaign.
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Our elections shouldn’t be about big checks; they should be about big ideas and finding the candidates who best represent their constituents. While this year’s elections are a far cry from that, a bill currently sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk could refocus our democracy on everyday voters by opening the door for small donor empowerment programs at the state and local level.
Senate Bill 1107, authored by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, permits counties, cities and the state to use public funds to establish their own campaign finance solutions. A 28-year-old law bans the use of public funds for political campaigns, and that ban is holding California back from considering promising solutions that are being adopted in other states.
Under a small-donor empowerment system, candidates who voluntarily opt in and agree to turn down large contributions would receive limited public matching funds for each small contribution they secure. Combined with refundable tax credits for small contributions, these programs can encourage candidates to raise funds from a broad swath of their constituents and increase civic participation.
We know the small-donor empowerment model works because it’s already working in local elections in places like New York. A 2012 study of New York City’s program found that it “helps bring participants into the political process who traditionally are less likely to be active” and “gives candidates an incentive to reach out to a broader and more diverse array of constituents.”
Six California charter cities have also adopted their own programs using public funds: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach, Oakland and Richmond. Berkeley voters will be considering a small-donor program for their own city elections this November. We believe that given the opportunity afforded by SB 1107, other local governments will want to do the same.
Poll after poll shows bipartisan frustration with the disproportionate influence of big money in politics. We need to be encouraging candidates to not only run viable campaign founded on grass-roots support, but also turn their attention to small contributors over special interests and megadonors. SB 1107 allows for just that, and Brown should sign the bill without delay.
Emily Rusch is the executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.