EDITORIAL: How to make regular folks’ $50 donations count in elections

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As political campaigns heat up going into the March 20 primary election, it’s a good time to think about drawing more voters into the process.

Too often, average voters think their voices are drowned out by waves of money. Too often, they’re right.

EDITORIAL

An effective answer would be to set up a system that turbocharges small campaign donations by matching them with larger amounts of public funding, typically six dollars for every dollar an average citizen gives.

That would amplify the voices of ordinary voters, which so often are drowned out by increasingly large flows of cash from wealthy donors. Candidates who might not pay much attention to someone who forks over $100 would have more reason to do so if public matching boosted that donation to $700.

A system of matching small donations would encourage candidates to return to retail politics instead of spending so much of their time placing phone calls to people with hefty bank accounts. Candidates often complain they have to make those calls if they want to run viable campaigns. They also complain about donors who hand over $5,000 to an aldermanic candidate, for example, and then two months later call up and ask for a zoning change in the alderman’s ward.

Small donor matching would give candidates an alternative. It also would encourage people who would like to run for office because they have ideas, but who don’t have access to bottomless war chests. As the system encourages people to make donations, it also will encourage them to become more invested in the political process.

Some form of small donor matching exists in many large cities, and New York has had a successful system for decades.

The concept is popular with voters. In 2015, a Chicago advisory referendum asking if a city or state system should be set up to “reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money” got nearly 79 percent of the vote.

But legislation to enact such a system unfortunately has gone nowhere. In the City Council, where the average aldermanic race cost $225,000 in 2015, a proposed ordinance has disappeared into Rules Committee limbo. In the Legislature, a bill passed the Senate in the last session but died in a House committee. Legislation pushed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to create a federal system has met a similar fate.

But Chicago Ald. Joe Moore (49th) and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said they plan to push for small donor matching again this year.

“It really just takes away that barrier that I think so many people perceive and experience, that it is too daunting to run, that it is all about the big donors,” Cassidy said. “Really, the message we see at the state and federal level is that this is a game for the wealthy.”

Once-successful public financing for presidential campaigns has been swamped by money that has poured in from super PACS raising unlimited funds since U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and associated rulings.

But there’s still room for successful systems on the state and local levels. Proponents are calling for a six-to-one match on donations of up to $150 from donors who reside in the jurisdiction a candidate is campaigning to represent. Others could donate as well, but their contributions would not be matched.

In Chicago, candidates taking part in the system would agree not to accept donations over $500, and they would have to raise $17,500 in their ward from small donations before they could qualify for matching. A cap would limit how much each candidate could receive. The goal isn’t to match the highest-spending candidates, but to give all serious candidates enough money to run a viable campaign.

Power brokers won’t like it, and incumbents who know who to call for big checks won’t necessarily be enthusiastic, either. Some taxpayers also might balk at the cost — an estimated $20 million per election cycle in the city.

But that’s a small investment for a system that makes politicians more responsive to the people they represent.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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