Baltimore ready to join the movement for public election financing
Baltimore is on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest cities in the country that gives taxpayer money to candidates willing to wean themselves off other sources of campaign cash.
The City Council approved legislation Monday creating a system of public matching funds for people running for local office who forswear donations from political action committees, corporations or unions — or from constituents wanting to give more than $150. Unless Democratic Mayor Jack Young rejects the bill, which seems unlikely, the system will take effect in the 2024 municipal campaign.
While the idea is effectively a dead letter at the federal level, public funding has gained steady popularity in states and localities, where advocates have successfully sold the idea as a way to stanch the sway that big money contributors exert on policymakers. Fourteen states and at least as many cities and counties now use grants, matching funds or vouchers to steer candidates away from private money.
The most recent public funding adoptees include Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the three big Maryland suburban jurisdictions surrounding Washington.
After three-quarters of voters supported a 2018 ballot measure to reform campaign finances in Maryland's biggest city, the council drafted the bill that's now on the mayor's desk. Members described public financing as a way to allow more people of modest means to compete for local office at a time when the cost of campaigning in the city has increased significantly.
Under the bill, candidates would have to display some support from the electorate before claiming taxpayer money — at least 500 contributions totaling $40,000 for mayoral aspirants, for example, and 150 donations amounting to $5,000 for council candidates.
The maximum donation from an individual would be $150, which would receive a $625 match. Mayoral candidates would get a headstart of $200,000 once they qualify. But above that the amount of matching funds would be capped at $1.5 million for mayoral candidates and $125,000 for council candidates.
Overall, this new system is anticipated to cost the city $2 million or a bit more each election.
The municipal financial office opposed the bill because it would automatically provide money for the matches, a break with precedent dicating most spending be subject to the annual budget process.
In Baltimore's last mayoral and council election, the donor pool did not reflect the city's demographics, according to an analysis by Demos, a left-leaning think tank that favors public funding.
About two-thirds of residents are black and one-third white, but that ratio was flipped for 2016 donors. In addition, residents who make more than $100,000, less than one-fifth of the population, accounted for 48 percent of the donations given to candidates.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.