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Town hall meeting addresses fair elections bill for county

FORT WASHINGTON – A more accessible campaign system may be in the future for Prince George’s County.

County Councilmembers Mary Lehman, Mel Franklin and Obie Patterson joined members of the Fair Elections Maryland Coalition at a town hall on Dec. 7 to discuss an upcoming council bill that would pass a Fair Elections Act for the county.

The bill would enable candidates for county council and county executive who receive small-dollar donations to qualify for limited matching funds if they refuse large contributions and those from corporations, political action committees (PACs) and other non-individuals.

Lehman plans to introduce the bill, which she described as her “number one legislative priority in 2018,” during the council’s first week back in January.

“It opens up the whole process, encourages grassroots campaigns,” Lehman said. “It means that citizens have a stronger voice, that there’s less influence from people and causes and interest groups with deeper pockets, and that the average person’s voice is literally magnified by these matches.”

Through the program, candidates would be able to receive donations up to $150 from individuals (a cap which will be reevaluated every four years for inflation). They can accept up to $12,000 in loans only from themselves and their immediate family members. However, they and their family members may not contribute or loan the campaign more than $6,000 individually.

“Public financing of local elections would be an outstanding way to empower ‘main street’ and give everyday families the ability to improve and influence their democracy,” Franklin said.

Candidates would need to raise sufficient funds on their own to demonstrate community support for their campaign before they receive the public funding.

County executive candidates would need 500 qualifying contributions totaling $40,000; council at-large candidates need 250 qualifying contributions totaling $15,000; and councilmember candidates need 150 qualifying contributions totaling $7,500.

For county council candidates, the match for the first $25 would be 6:1; the next $50 would be 4:1; and the last $75 would be 1:1. For county executive candidates, the first $25 would be matched 7:1; the next $50 5:1; and the last $75 1:1. The county would match contributions up to $1 million for county executive; $250,000 for council-at-large; and $75,000 for councilmembers.

Lehman anticipates the final piece of legislation, which will take effect in time for the 2022 elections, will look quite different from the current draft.

“My strategy is to get it out early so we have months to discuss it, debate it (and) amend it, because it is a complex proposal,” Lehman said. “It’s a lot for people to get their mind around how it would actually work, what it means for the system, where we would get the money to fund it. There are a lot questions, there’s a lot of education to be done, of the public and of councilmembers, and that includes me.”

As of right now, Patterson, Franklin and Deni Taveras plan to co-sign the bill. They will need a minimum of five co-sponsors, though Lehman is optimistic the bill will pass.

County Executive Rushern Baker, III, said he supports the legislation.

“I give the legislation my wholehearted support and I look forward to working with the council on a program that is fiscally prudent and sound,” Baker said in a statement.

Lehman noted Taveras wants to ensure the bill will benefit the immigrant community in Prince George’s County. So, the council will examine the impact of a similar bill on Montgomery County.

“She’s interested in statistics after this election year (in Montgomery County) and hoping they show there is more immigrant participation in the process in contributing to candidates and in actually voting,” Lehman said. “And so we’ve promised we will write that into the bill.”

Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland, noted most people who run for office in the United States tend to be male, white, wealthy and/or well-connected. He said people may “self-select themselves out of the process” if they feel they cannot raise the necessary funds to campaign.

“That’s one of the saddest things. We have a country that was founded on the principle of being for and by the people of this country, yet this is what’s happening to our democracy,” Stafford said. “There is hope. We have solutions that we can put forward to balance the scale in our political system.”

During the question-and-answer session, one resident queried how such a program would be funded. Lehman responded that the council could use two percent of the county’s annual permitting and licensing fee revenue. Another option would be to have registration fees for lobbyists and collect fines if lobbyists do not register or break the rules. Lehman said another option would be check-off boxes on county bills, such as property tax. She said the program would cost about $2 million a year.

“You pass the law years before it takes effect because you need time to build up that fund. You certainly can’t do it overnight,” Lehman said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Another resident asked whether this would have an actual effect on policy passed in the county.

“There are definitely studies that demonstrate there is a shift in the policy-making landscape for candidates that are in systems that have (public funding),” Stafford said. “There are less decisions driven by special interest.”

Cheverly resident Dan Smith, who said he supports the legislation, asked whether it would fully address problems with the electoral process.

“I do have great concerns about slates and third-party funding, so that we don’t put so much energy into this and think this is going to do it, and we come out at the end and just go, ‘oh no, it’s the same old thing,’” he said. “When it comes down to it, the slate influence is so overwhelming. How can we do that and look at the whole package, even if we can’t address it all at once?”

Stafford replied that “public funding of elections at the very least provides an alternative.”

Under the draft bill, candidates who participate in the program may not form a slate committee, but would be able to associate with and share expenses with a team of candidates.

Slates are when multiple candidates run for different seats or positions on a common platform.

The bill will also establish a seven-member citizen’s commission that will review the bill annually, including before it takes effect in 2022.

Lehman expressed the importance of citizens getting involved in supporting the bill.

“We need this to be a grassroots effort,” Lehman said. “We need hearings to be standing room only. We need people sending emails and make phone calls and asking questions.”

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