Chicago vote seeks to explore ways small contributions can expand number of qualified candidates, improve turnout and provide an alternative to “big money” campaigns.

By the BGA

As the flow of campaign cash grows and participation in elections shrinks, Chicago voters have an opportunity to say if they want to try something new and different.

On the February 24 mayoral and aldermanic election ballot, the electorate will be asked to weigh in on an advisory question that seeks to find a way of reducing what is often perceived as the disproportionate influence of big cash donors in election campaigns. The advisory asks voters to say “yes” to exploring an option for candidates that’s more reliant on contributions from small donors coupled with limited public money.  

After examining the issue, the BGA’s policy team supports answering  “yes” to this ballot question:

“To the Voters of the City of Chicago: Should the City of Chicago or the State of Illinois reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money?”

Voting “yes” is not the final word on making small donor or public financing part of the election process. It is just the beginning of a conversation about how to open up elections and make them more accessible to everyday people, as voters and candidates.  

However, a  “yes” vote does support, in concept, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois joining cities and states around the country that have adopted programs to partially fund election campaigns by matching small campaign donations from individuals with grants from tax dollars.

RELATED CONTENT:Voters’ Guide — 2015 City of Chicago Municipal Elections

On February 24, Chicago residents will cast their votes for citywide and aldermanic offices. For answers to some important general election questions, check out the BGA’s voters’ guide.

 Thanks largely to the efforts of Common Cause Illinois to get the advisory referendum on the upcoming ballot, Chicago voters can express their opinion about looking into such a program.  

Here’s some basic background on small donor campaigns that drew the BGA’s support:

Candidate choice. Those running for office can choose whether to opt into the program.  If they do, candidates would qualify for matching funds first by demonstrating grassroots support such as meeting a minimum threshold of contributions from local small donors.  And candidates voluntarily accept restrictions such as spending limits, self-funding caps, and limits or prohibitions on accepting donations from interest groups.  

The flagship program is in New York City, where each qualifying private donation of $1 is matched with $6 in public financing, for city resident contributions of up to $175.  Most candidates opt to participate; the program accounts for more than 90 percent of the contributions in New York City’s local elections.  

Other jurisdictions with similar programs include the states of Arizona, Maryland, Vermont and Maine and cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, Albuquerque, and New Haven.   

It’s democratic. The program’s goal is to “small d” democratize elections.  To encourage more people of modest means to run for public office, reward candidates for seeking support from everyday citizens, and make candidates less reliant on money from the deep pockets of special interest groups.

Since adopting a small donor program, New York City has seen significantly more diversity in its pool of candidates for municipal office and those candidates have relied on a more diverse base of contributors to win election.   

Illinois is challenged, not just to find diverse candidates, but any candidates at all for some elections. In last March’s state primary, of the more than 300 non-judicial races in Cook and the Collar Counties, 78% had only one candidate, or not a single candidate. 

And in New York City more people of modest means have participated as campaign contributors. The goal isn’t just to change how candidates campaign but to affect voters as well.  Enhancing the value of local people’s contributions encourages and rewards their participation and engagement in the community, say proponents of small donor campaigns.

Reducing “pay to play”?  Small donor programs offer hope of reducing “pay to play” and other conflicts of interest.

Many jurisdictions disallow contributions from any individual or entity with a contract or in negotiations for a contract with that jurisdiction, over a certain dollar amount.

 By disallowing contributions from individuals and entities that have business dealings with the municipality, the potential for a pay-to-play relationship is significantly lowered, experts say.

Small but powerful funding. Virtually all of the successful small donor programs are funded through state or municipal appropriations. However, that funding usually makes up far less than 1% of the jurisdiction’s budget, a tradeoff for limiting the potentially corrupt influence of big money in politics.

Limits can be set on the amount of public funding devoted to a small donor program. Some limits are built-in: If a candidate opts in but fails to garner much voter support, the candidate will receive few or no public funds.

Sometimes a limit is explicit, such as a cap on program expenditures.

Transparency. To administer the program, some jurisdictions set up a separate oversight structure while others turn to their state elections board or the city clerk or city attorney.  They have the power to audit and set up the reporting requirements candidates must comply with. This is essential to the anti-corruption goals of the program.  
No legal barriers. A most basic advantage to small donor programs is that they’re legal.

Following in the wake of the landmark Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which resulted in removal of limits on campaign contributions by corporations, unions and other associations–and at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out laws that mandate limits on campaign donations candidate fundraising, self-funding, and campaign spending—the small donor match program’s voluntary approach is one of the few Davids left standing to face the Goliath of big campaign cash.    

There are myriad details to be fleshed out before a small donor program can actually be implemented in Chicago or in Illinois.

Obviously, one such initiative will not be the only driver of campaign reform but on the February 24 ballot, voters can start the process.

They can indicate their support for this approach, their desire to limit special interest money.

Vote yes.

Judy Stevens, BGA Policy Coordinator, wrote this post. Contact her at She’s on twitter @judystevensbga.