Report: Democracy For The People

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors

How Matching Funds Would Reshape the Cook County State's Attorney Democratic Primary
Released by: Illinois PIRG Education Fund

As campaign season kicks in in Illinois and across the country, the influence of big money on our elections is more evident than ever. As the New York Times reported last fall, fewer than 158 families are responsible for nearly half of all early campaign money raised in the 2016 presidential race. Illinois continues to set new records: in early February, a State Representative candidate received a single contribution of $500,000 in a Democratic primary.

While the figures may grow ever more eye-popping, this story is nothing new and the public is broadly convinced that big money has undue-influence on our elections. There is support across the political spectrum for limiting this influence, with 84% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans supporting stronger campaign finance laws.

It is time to move beyond documenting the problem to seriously consider available solutions. Programs where small contributions are matched with limited public funds for candidates who agree to turn down large contributions are gaining increasing support. New York City has run such a program for years, and this fall voters in Maine and Seattle voted to support similar programs.

There are bills in Congress, including the Fair Elections Now Act sponsored by Senator Durbin, to create similar programs for Congressional Elections. In January Aldermen Joe Moore, Michelle Harris and John Arena introduced an ordinance for a small donor for Chicago Elections. There are similar efforts underway in Evanston, Oak Park, and Cook County.

This report examines how the Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic primary could be reshaped by a public financing system that amplifies the voices of small donors in our elections. The Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic primary has become a high profile campaign in the wake of incumbent Anita Alvarez’s handling of the Laquan McDonald case. Alvarez and her principle challenger, Kim Foxx, both have a strong base of political support and have both raised significant campaign funds. The second challenger, Donna More, loaned her campaign $250,000 in December, lifting campaign contribution caps for all candidates.

Using data released by the State Board of Elections this January, this analysis demonstrates that a small donor empowerment system would provide a powerful incentive for candidates to shift their fundraising strategy to focus on small donors, and access to a narrow set of wealthy donors, party leaders, or vast personal wealth would not determine the viability of a campaign.

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