Voters in Maine and Seattle Stand Up to Big Money
On Election Day, 2015, volunteers, activists, and voters in Maine and Seattle took a stand against big money politics. These two victories at the ballot box took place on opposite sides of the country, but the campaigns supporting them tell the story of a single movement – one to put ordinary voters back in control of our elections.
One year before their victory in 2015, nearly 1,000 volunteers fanned out across the state of Maine to collect signatures for a ballot initiative restoring the state’s Clean Elections system. The campaign was led by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and relied on a bipartisan volunteer and organizational network across the state, including Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Education Association, to deliver this people-powered win.
Current and former lawmakers of all political stripes joined with activists and volunteers to voice their support for strengthening Maine’s Clean Election Act.
“This campaign isn’t about Democrats or Republicans or Independents,” former Maine State Senator Ed Youngblood (R) said about the campaign. “It’s about making sure that everyone—not just the wealthy-can be represented in our democracy.”[i]
On the other side of the country, a coalition of groups gathered under the banner of “Honest Elections Seattle” to support their own ballot initiative to create a first-in-the-nation program empowering city residents to contribute to local campaigns. The coalition, which included Win Win Action, Washington CAN, Washington Bus, Fuse Washington, Sightline, One America, and WashPIRG ran a sophisticated grassroots-driven campaign to achieve an overwhelming victory, passing Seattle’s Honest Elections ballot initiative with a 63 to 37 percent mandate.
The Seattle campaign was endorsed by a diverse group of local organizations, the King County Executive, nearly every City Council candidate, and Seattle-area members of Congress.
“It's about equity; candidates and elected officials often don't make efforts to get to know young people, immigrants, or Latinos, or to talk to us when they're campaigning,” one campaign volunteer, Felipe Rodriguez-Flores said. “We all have something to say about decisions that affect us, and I-122 will turn our voices into political action and better representation.”
Reforms that Put Power in the Hands of the People
Princeton scholar Martin Gilens has observed that “under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.”[ii]
How can this have happened in what is supposed to be a representative democracy? We know that the wealthiest Americans have starkly different policy priorities than those of the general public, but why is government so much more responsive to them than to everyone else?
In large part, the answer is related to the dominance of big money in our elections.
Fortunately, real-world examples prove that changing the way we fund campaigns translates into more responsive representation for ordinary citizens.
In 2005, Connecticut created the Citizens’ Election Program, providing an option for statewide and legislative candidates to receive public grants to fund their campaigns.[iii] To qualify for the system, candidates must raise a set amount of funding from a sufficient number of small donors and agree to certain spending limits. The program took effect for the 2008 elections, and has proven popular with candidates and the public.
In 2014, 84 percent of successful candidates used the program.[iv] A 2010 poll found 79 percent support for the program among Connecticut voters.[v] Recently, the state’s Democratic leadership attempted to defund the system, but withdrew the proposal within 72 hours in the face of a significant public backlash.[vi]
The Citizens’ Election Program has led to many concrete benefits for Connecticut residents. The system appears to have increased the number of donors, improved the legislative process, decreased the influence of lobbyists, increased the number of candidates, and increased the diversity of both candidates and elected officials.[vii] The percentage of both women and Latino legislators increased significantly after the program went into effect.[viii] Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill noted that “public financing definitely made the legislature more diverse. There are more people of color, more young people, more women, and more young women.”[ix]
In addition, the system has enabled candidates to spend less time fundraising and more time talking to constituents or studying the issues. State Representative Al Adinolfi (R-103) noted that “before public financing…[y]ou’d spend half of your time in the election cycle calling up people, raising money instead of going out knocking on doors. Now, you’re getting it from the people and hearing what they want and not from special interests.”[x]
But, most important, the Citizens’ Election Program has led to policies that are more in line with Connecticut voters’ preferences. Within three years of implementing the system the state increased its minimum wage; instituted an earned income tax credit benefitting 180,000 households; reclaimed $24 million in annual revenue by returning unclaimed bottle deposits to the state treasury (rather than to beer and soda distributors); and instituted the nation’s first statewide paid sick leave requirement.[xi]
The paid sick leave victory illustrates of how small donor democracy can tip the scales in power of average citizens. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers (more than 41 million people), and more than half of Latino workers, have no option to take paid days to recover from illness or care for sick family members.[xii] Polls consistently show that 70 to 75 percent of the public supports paid sick day laws.[xiii] But in the early 2000s, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) was a vocal opponent of paid sick day legislation.[xiv] Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell and Democratic House Speaker James Amann, both recipients of campaign contributions from the CBIA, bolstered the Association’s opposition.[xv] While the bill passed the Senate and was reported out of committee, Amann never put the legislation up for a full House vote.[xvi]
Then, 2010, the first year that the Citizens’ Election Program was available for gubernatorial elections, Democratic candidate Dannel Malloy won the election using grants from the program.[xvii] Malloy enthusiastically supported paid sick leave, in contrast to his primary and general election opponents, Democratic businessmen Ned Lamont and Republican Tom Foley.[xviii] He campaigned in support of paid sick days and continued to champion the policy after taking office.[xix]
A leader of the paid sick day campaign, Connecticut Working Families’ Lindsay Farrell, notes that, “Connecticut's public financing system helped us to pass paid sick days because, in the Democratic primary, there was a multimillionaire who spent tons of money and the general election had a Republican who was a multimillionaire. Without public financing, [Malloy] wouldn’t have been both competitive and progressive.” Public financing “allowed him to be competitive in a race at that level without compromising on an issue like paid sick days.”[xx]
By the time Malloy took office, the state House speakership had also changed hands. Publicly-funded progressive Chris Donovan had replaced moderate James Amann as House Speaker and, unlike Amann, he backed the paid sick day proposal.[xxi] With Donovan leading one chamber, publicly-funded Senate President Donald Williams, Jr. leading the other, and Malloy in the governor’s mansion, the paid sick day bill sped through the legislative process.[xxii] Before the end of the first year of Malloy’s first term in office, he had signed it into law, making Connecticut the first state in the nation to guarantee workers access to paid sick days.[xxiii] Within 18 months of the law taking effect, 77 percent of Connecticut employers reported supporting the paid sick day law.[xxiv]
New York City
New York City implemented a small donor matching policy in 1989 and has improved it several times so that the program now provides a six-to-one match on the first $175 of a resident’s contribution to qualifying city candidates.[xxv] More than 90 percent of 2013 primary election candidates and nearly 75 percent of general election candidates chose to participate in the matching fund program.[xxvi]
The program has resulted in more competitive city elections and a broader and more diverse donor base. Nearly 90 percent of the city’s census blocks were home to at least one small donor for a city council race in 2009.[xxvii] In contrast, 2010 State Assembly campaigns, for which no comparable program exists, received small donations from only 30 percent of the city’s census blocks.[xxviii] For contributions below $50, the Latino and African American share of the donor pool in New York City has matched or exceeded population share, while whites dominate the ranks of large contributions.[xxix]
The New York program has led to important policy victories as well. Paid sick leave legislation is again a great example. By March 2013, advocates led by the New York Working Families Party (WFP) had built support for the policy from a strong, diverse coalition, including forward-looking business leaders and the overwhelming majority of the City Council. But, they faced a formidable obstacle: the City Council Speaker (who was the frontrunner to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg in upcoming elections) would not bring the bill up for a vote.
WFP convinced 14 councilmembers to go over the Speaker’s head by filing a “discharge petition” to bring the bill to a vote—a bold and politically risky tactic that had never before been executed during the Speaker’s tenure. This forced a negotiation, which led to a 2013 law that making New York City the most populous place in the nation to mandate paid sick leave.[xxx] Mayor Bill DeBlasio and the new City Council later expanded the law’s reach when he took office in 2014.[xxxi]
According to WFP’s paid sick days campaign manager, Emmanuel Caicedo, the city’s public financing program was essential to the campaign’s success.[xxxii] All 14 of the councilmembers who signed the petition participated in the City’s program, which gave them the independence to stand up to the powerful Speaker. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we would not have won paid sick leave for more than one million New Yorkers without the City’s public matching program,” says Caicedo. “The program created the political space for city council members to act according to their values. They weren’t beholden to the corporate interests who opposed the legislation.”
Maine voters passed the nation’s first statewide “clean elections” law in 1996, and in 2015 updated the policy to account for recent Supreme Court decisions that had undermined its implementation.[xxxiii]
Participation in the system has been generally robust, with more than 75 percent of general election candidates participating in each election year between 2004 and 2010.[xxxiv] The program appears to have helped create a legislature that is more reflective of Maine’s overall population. A 2007 report by the Maine Ethics Commission concluded that the program was important to increasing the number of women running for office.[xxxv] A 2014 book examining the class backgrounds of American legislators noted that Maine has the most blue-color legislature in the country, and connected this makeup to policies generally friendly to working families.[xxxvi]
Public funding programs aren’t the only money in politics reforms that have led to more accountable government—strict limits on campaign contributions and spending can yield similar results. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has undercut the people’s ability to protect our democracy by striking down effective policy solutions that limit big money. [xxxvii]
One of the key reasons the court has given for overturning all spending limits and some contribution limits is that such limits protect incumbents from robust challenges by outsider candidates who need more resources to mount viable campaigns.[xxxviii] This reasoning is flawed, as studies have shown, because in fact incumbents raise large war chests in our big money system and enjoy sky-high re-election rates.[xxxix]
The City of Albuquerque, New Mexico provides perhaps the best example. Albuquerque maintained candidate-spending limits for mayoral races for more than 20 years despite of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling striking federal campaign spending limits.[xl] The city’s mayoral reelection rate during the period spending limits were in effect was zero percent—not one incumbent was returned to power.[xli]
Tough restrictions on big money can both reduce the influence of wealthy donors and make candidates and officers more accountable to ordinary citizens by fostering electoral competition.
In 2005, after Albuquerque’s spending limits were struck down by federal courts, the city adopted a public funding program.[xlii] A subsequent analysis of this program by the Center for Governmental Studies found that:
Candidates have reduced their campaign spending. Citizens have seen a return to a form of “retail” politics characterized more by personal contacts with candidates than expensive media advertising. The program has reduced the appearance of undue influence by large campaign donors…Voters have embraced Albuquerque’s public campaign financing program, and officials contacted said they would use the program again instead of raising private donations.[xliii]
[i] Bangor Daily News, “Campaign coalesces to support campaign finance reform in November,” May 21, 2015
[ii] Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2014).
[iii] State Elections Enforcement Commission Citizens’ Election Program Overview: 2014 General Assembly and Statewide Office: Primary and General Elections (Mar. 2014), http://www.ct.gov/seec/lib/seec/2014gaandstatewide/cep_overview_2014_with_cpi_032014.pdf
[iv] Public Campaign, Small Donor Solutions to Big Money: The 2014 Elections and Beyond (2015).
[vi] http://www.courant.com/politics/capitol-watch/hc-senate-democrats-back-off-on-campaign-finance-cuts-20151119-story.html ; http://ctmirror.org/2015/11/19/democrats-campaign-finance-cuts-losing-steam/
[vii] J. Mijin Cha & Miles Rapoport, Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Campaign Financing in Connecticut, Demos (2013) at 8-14.
[viii] Id. at 13.
[ix] Id. at 13.
[x] Fresh Start at 7.
[xi] Fresh Start at 15-16.
[xii] Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Paid Sick Days Access in the U.S.: Differences by Race/Ethnicity, Occupation, Earnings, and Work Schedule, March 20140.
[xiii] Adam Lioz, Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos (2014) at 67.
[xiv] Id. at 68.
[xv] Id. at 68.
[xvi] Id. at 68.
[xvii] Jon Lender & Christopher Keating, Official Governor Results Released: Malloy Wins, Hartford Courant (Nov. 5, 2010), http://articles.courant.com/2010-11-05/news/hc-ct-governor-election-results-1106-20101105_1_democrat-dannel-malloy-republican-tom-foley-top-election-officialNational Institute on Money in State Politics, http://www.followthemoney.org/entity-details?eid=7192819.
[xviii] Mark Pazniokas, Lamont: A political ‘rock star’ tries to expand his base, CT Mirror (Feb. 8, 2010), http://ctmirror.org/lamont-political-rock-star-tries-expand-his-base/Greg Bordonaro, Foley Says Union Power Hurting Competitiveness, HartfordBusiness.com (Oct. 25, 2010), http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/article/20101025/PRINTEDITION/310259980/foley-says-union-power-hurting-competitiveness
[xix] Malloy for Governor, Malloy says Lamont is wrong on paid sick leave, StamfordPlus (Feb. 2010), http://everybodybenefits.org/2011/01/malloy-says-lamont-is-wrong-on-paid-sick-leave/ Christopher Keating, Malloy Tells Business Audience He Favors Requiring Paid Sick Leave, Hartford Courant (Jan. 7, 2011), http://articles.courant.com/2011-01-07/news/hc-malloy-cbia-sick-leave-20110107_1_sick-time-sick-days-day-care-center
[xx] Personal communication between source quoted and Demos Policy Analyst Karen Shanton on June 24, 2014.
[xxi] National Institute on Money in State Politics, http://www.followthemoney.org/entity-details?eid=3709206Lockhart, supra note 253
[xxii] National Institute on Money in State Politics, http://www.followthemoney.org/entity-details?eid=6378395
[xxiii] Chad Garland, Gov. Jerry Brown signs bill to require paid sick leave, Los Angeles Times (Sept. 10, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-brown-paid-sick-leave-20140911-story.htmlSinger, supra note 251.
[xxiv] Eileen Appelbaum et. al., Good for Business? Connecticut’s Paid Sick Leave Law, Center for Economic Policy and Research (2014).
[xxix] Stacked Deck at 22-23.
[xxxii] Caicedo is now a Senior Campaign Strategist with Demos.
[xxxvii] Demos, “BREAKING THE VICIOUS CYCLE: RESCUING OUR DEMOCRACY AND OUR ECONOMY BY TRANSFORMING THE SUPREME COURT’S FLAWED APPROACH TO MONEY IN POLITICS,” December 15, 2015
[xl] Molly Milligan, Public Campaign Financing in Albuquerque: Citizens Win With Clean Money Elections, Center for Governmental Studies (
[xli] Richard Briffault, The Return of Spending Limits: Campaign Finance after Landell v. Sorrell, 32 Fordham Urban Law Journal 101, 107-11 (2004).
[xlii] Milligan at 8.
[xliii] Milligan at 1.