In the 2018 midterm elections we saw more women and people of diverse backgrounds run for office and win elections than ever before. As a result, we are starting to see a government that looks more like the people it represents. To continue building a democracy that better reflects our country, more everyday Americans should have the opportunity to run for office. But time and time again we see the candidates with the deepest pockets win elections.
Right now, there is sweeping legislation moving through the House of Representatives that stands to change that. The For the People Act, also known as H.R. 1, includes a public financing system for elections that will level the playing field for all candidates.
This alternative system for political fundraising will create small donor, public matching funds for congressional and presidential candidates—rebalancing our system so ‘big money’ doesn’t decide who gets a seat at the table. That means more people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds—women, people of color, and low-wage earners—could find it easier to run for office.
For many female candidates, fundraising continues to be a challenge, and the idea of raising money deters them from running in the first place. While male candidates overwhelmingly possess networks of moneyed connections or the means to self-fund their campaigns, women often must rely on small donations.
Small donor, public matching funds provide an opportunity for candidates to consider running for office who otherwise might not. Under the proposed system, candidates who participate in the program receive a six-to-one match on qualifying funds. This means that a $20 donation to a campaign becomes $120 with the matching funds. This public support releases candidates from dependence on special interests and large dollar funders, allowing them to run without strings attached.
This fund matching concept isn’t a new idea. Maine has had volunteer public funding for gubernatorial and state legislature candidates since 1996, when the League of Women Voters of Maine led a coalition effort to pass the Maine Clean Election Act.
In 2015, the League of Women Voters Seattle championed and Seattle voters passed an initiative that created a voucher program for local elections. The Honest Elections Seattle law provides each registered voter with a $25 Democracy Voucher, which Seattle residents can use to support participating candidates running for city office.
While these advancements are the exception – they should and could become the norm. For far too long, politicians have had to rely on deep pocket contributions to run their campaigns, a system which effectively bars candidates without ‘big money’ connections from competitively running. Too often, this prevents women from being elected to represent their communities. Now we have an opportunity to make our system more representative.
If we want to build a democracy is that is truly FOR the people - it needs to be reflective OF the people.
We need more diverse voices speaking up for their communities, and we want to continue to see that reflected in elected officials. That means we must break down barriers that stand in the way for promising and qualified candidates with goals of becoming elected officials. We must free candidates from depending on ‘big money’ to run competitive campaigns.
Elections shouldn’t be about money. Elections must be about the issues that are important to American voters. No one should be sidelined from running for office because they don’t have millionaire friends, and connections to corporate interests shouldn’t be a prerequisite for elected office.
The small donor, matching funds provision of the For the People Act will empower more diverse dedicated and passionate citizens to run for office and work on behalf of all Americans. This provision is critical to ensuring our elections are open to candidates of all types – not just those with deep pockets.
Virginia Kase is the CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States.