SILVER SPRING — As the May 12 deadline for candidates in the County to qualify for public financing approaches political leaders in the County are calling for election reforms.
Former County Council member Phil Andrews said he believes the County and the state needs to make several changes to its election system including going to an open primary system where any voter, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in a party primary election.
“If we want truly representative elections that produce representative representatives and then that produce representative public policy, we need to allow all voters to vote for any candidate,” Andrews said last Thursday to a small audience gathered for a forum on the topic at the Silver Spring Library.
“The current system shuts out lots of voters and encourages candidates of both the Democratic and Republican Party to cater to the most ideological members of each party, which produces unrepresentative results as well as polarization,” he added.
Andrews, who represented Rockville and Gaithersburg on the County Council from 1998-2014, explained that he would like to see a jungle primary instituted in the state, adding it would incentivize candidates “to appeal to a more-moderate general election electorate.”
In addition to Andrews, the forum, which was moderated by Project Vote lawyer Stephen Mortellaro, included Delegate David Moon (D-District 20) and Common Cause Maryland Acting Director Damon Effingham.
Moon, who added that he favors ranked-choice voting, urged that rules for candidates not using public financing should be strengthened.
Moon, who represents Takoma Park and Silver Spring in Annapolis, explained that Maryland campaign finance laws allow corporations to donate directly to candidates, adding “Congress and about half the states don’t allow this.”
“You can look at the campaign finance forms for most top leaders in this state … and just see pages and pages of non-humans giving donations to candidates,” Moon said.
While the public financing system is for County Council and County Executive candidates, he said that getting a state-level system could require some type of “catalytic major event” to bring attention to the issue.
“I need something to happen in the outside world, that Enron, that Watergate, to put a fire under policymakers and make them to make changes [to the way] their own elections are conducted,” he said. “No one could have predicted Freddie Gray was going to get his spine snapped, and suddenly criminal justice reform would take off.”
Effingham explained that identities of donors are not always known, adding that “nameless, faceless, and sometimes address-less LLCs are able to donate the maximum amount of money to candidates and get around the campaign finance rules that we already have.”
The former County Council member, who is currently a director at the State’s Attorney’s Office, explained that the system is designed to ensure that candidates with sufficient public support qualify for public financing, adding that it also “presents more opportunity for challengers … who don’t have the same kind of access to power and big givers.”
To qualify for matching funds, candidates are required to gather a minimum number of contributions to meet a minimum threshold. For County Council candidates seeking to represent one of the five districts, candidates must receive a minimum of $10,000 from at least 125 contributions, while at-large candidates must receive $20,000 from at least 200 contributions. County Executive candidates qualify if they receive $40,000 from 500 contributions.
Candidates who qualify for matching funds are allowed to accept contributions up to $150 and are prohibited from accepting contributions from political action committees, corporations, unions, and political party central committees. Candidates are also prohibited from accepting loans from individuals other than the candidate or the candidate’s spouse.
Once a candidate has qualified, contributions up to $50 are matched quadrupled for County Council candidates and matched 6-1 for County Executive candidates, with the ratio decreasing with greater amounts up to $150. The maximum a candidate can raise through the system is $750,000 for County Executives, $250,000 for County Council At-Large seats, and $125,000 for County Council District seats.
As of April 30, 2018, three out of four County Executive candidates seeking public financing have qualified for matching funds, while 12 out of 19 County Council At-Large candidates and five out of 10 County Council district candidates have qualified for matching funds.