Diverse coalition urges lawmakers to give small donors a bigger voice

Salem, Ore. — A diverse coalition representing Oregonians from across the state on Wednesday will urge the Senate Committee on Campaign Finance to support a small donor election system that reduces the power of big money in state politics by limiting big campaign contributions and increasing small ones.

A Voice for All Oregon coalition members Kate Titus, the executive director of Common Cause Oregon, and Sushma Raghavan, the field director for Unite Oregon, are scheduled to testify at 3 p.m. in HR B during an informational hearing on the public financing of campaigns and other solutions to limit the influence of big money in politics.

The coalition is proposing the state adopt a small donor election system that would enable Oregonians to finance election campaigns with grassroots support. To qualify, candidates would agree to a campaign contribution limit of $250 and meet other qualifying thresholds. People making contributions up to $250 would see their contributions amplified with a $6 to $1 super match. That means a contribution of $10 would translate to $70, and a $250 contribution would become $1,750.

“Our democracy has been knocked out of balance by the influx of big money in elections,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon. “We need system in which everyone participates, every vote is counted, and everyone’s voice is heard. This small donor elections program lets candidates win with the support of everyday Oregonians, not wealthy, out-of-state, special interests.”

The call for small donor elections comes as state leaders including Governor Kate Brown consider measures to significantly curtail the role money plays in Oregon politics. Proposals under consideration would enable Oregon to set limits on the amount of money candidates can accept from donors and make it easier to identify deep-pocketed donors to independent campaign committees.

Those changes alone do not go far enough to shift the balance of power away from wealthy, special interest donors and toward ordinary Oregonians, said Charlie Fisher, state director of OSPIRG. The top 25 donors gave six times more than all other donors combined in the 2016 state elections, the most recent data available, which gives them a megaphone in Salem.

“When we empower more people to have a say in our elections and allow candidates to run free of big money, politicians will have a chance to listen to ordinary people—working families, young people and students, the people historically passed over when our candidates have to raise big money to be competitive,” Fisher said. “This is the year we need to pass the megaphone to the people from special interest donors.”

Small Donor Elections Remove Barriers

More than 30 jurisdictions nationwide provide public support to political campaigns financed by small donors, including municipalities such as New York City and Seattle (Portland’s system goes into effect in 2020) and states including Arizona, Connecticut and Maine. Studies of New York City’s matching system and grant-based systems in Arizona and Connecticut have shown that public financing can significantly increase the diversity of the donor base and help more candidates of color run for office and win elections, according to Demos, a public policy organization.

“As Oregon’s population grows to be more racially diverse, we’ve seen more people of color elected, but communities of color are still significantly under-represented proportional to their share of the population,” said Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first African-American woman elected to the Portland City Council, whose grassroots campaign was financed by more than 2,700 small donors. “The need to raise large contributions to win elected office creates barriers for those who haven’t been sanctioned by the existing political donor class, or don’t have networks of their own wealthy contributors, which has a disproportionate effect on deterring women, people of color, and low-income people from running for office.”

Small Donor Elections Spur Policy Changes

Beyond breaking down barriers, the Center for American Progress reports that comprehensive small-donor systems may provide candidates the political will to make change that benefits ordinary people. For example, not long after Connecticut’s implementation of a Citizens’ Election Program, lawmakers from the new cohort of small-donor-supported candidates championed and passed a paid sick leave law that had been opposed by special interests and blocked in the state legislature in years prior.

“Participating in our democracy is more than just showing up on Election Day, it’s making sure the people we elect support policies that improve wages, housing and education for people of diverse backgrounds,” said Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon. “We can do that with small donor elections. This reform puts everyday Oregonians into the center of our democracy.”

What’s Next for Small Donor Elections?

Representative Dan Rayfield is expected to introduce a small donor elections bill later this month, the third time in three sessions. The bill has a stronger likelihood of passage this session, he said, because the Senate created a new committee on campaign finance to examine the issue, the Governor is making campaign finance a top priority, and Democrats have strong majorities in the Senate and House.

“By moving toward a system in which elections are funded by small donors, we’ll keep large moneyed interests out of politics,” Rayfield said. “It’s a system in which ordinary Oregonians can be as powerful as big money donors, thereby ensuring that everyday voters’ concerns and priorities are represented in public policy.”