With Howard County’s June primary looming, the independent Citizens’ Election Fund Commission, good government advocates, and activists are concerned that the small donor public financing program is not being properly implemented. The County has been unwilling to distribute funds to participating candidates who have qualified for matching funds and the County Council has yet to take action on the Commission’s request.
A hearing on legislation to clarify the law is scheduled for Tuesday, January 18th, at 7:00pm.
In 2016, Howard County voters approved a Charter Amendment, Question A, to create the Citizens’ Election Fund and direct the County Council to finalize a program for small donor public financing. 76,000 people voted “for” the Charter Amendment, which was the first ballot measure of its kind in the nation following the Citizens United decision. In 2017 the County Council finalized the program by overturning a veto from former County Executive Allan Kittleman, setting the program up to be in effect for the 2022 elections for County Executive and County Council. The program was supported by now County Executive Calvin Ball and many current members of the County Council.
“It’s critical this program be properly implemented for this current election cycle,” said Joanne Antoine, Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland. “We’re counting on the County Executive and Council to quickly follow through on the Commission’s request with a vote in support of this straightforward amendment through emergency legislation. Any action other than this sends a message to County residents that they are prioritizing their own interest instead of the will of the voters as they would essentially be standing in the way of anyone planning to use the program this cycle, including their own challengers. I hope that is not the case as the program’s intent is clear. Let’s not stand in the way of what we hope will be a successful first use of the program.”
The program is designed to:
- Encourage participation by providing matching funds for small contributions from county residents
- Elevate the voices of everyday people by matching small contributions on a scale (between 6-to-1 and 1-to-1) with the smallest donations matched at the highest rate.
- Expand opportunities to run for office by enabling candidates to run competitive races for office by building support in their community. This allows people from all backgrounds to run for office on the strength of their ideas, not access to money, and will help build a diverse and representative government.
- Keep big money out by rejecting all contributions over $250 and any contributions from corporations, unions, or PACs.
- Establish an independent commission to oversee the program and make funding recommendations.
“Howard County voters have been waiting for 6 years for an election where candidates can run for office without accepting any large or corporate contributions and instead rely on support from small donors. We are counting on County Executive Ball and the County Council to fix this situation immediately,” said Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr.
According to the Commission, the County Executive can remedy this problem and protect the hard-fought small donor public financing program by directing the Finance Department to release the funds to qualifying candidates. The County Council can affirm this decision and guarantee the program is successful in future cycles by passing emergency legislation. The Council is considering CB 6-2022 to make technical changes to clarify the law. The bill is not currently emergency legislation, meaning that it would only go into effect 60 days after passage – leaving participating candidates who have qualified at a disadvantage. The Coalition and the Commission request that it be treated as an emergency bill which would allow for a timely disbursement of matching funds. Four of the five County Council members would need to support the bill for it to be passed as emergency legislation. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, January 18th, at 7:00pm.
Small donor public financing programs have proven popular with voters across Maryland and are effective in empowering small donors.
The Fair Elections Maryland Coalition has worked to successfully help pass resolutions for charter amendments establishing similar programs across the state. In addition to Howard County, Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County have already established Fair Elections Funds, and Anne Arundel County is considering following suit. Maryland has had a public financing system for gubernatorial campaigns since the 1970s, which was updated earlier this year.