Give candidates who aren’t wealthy, or backed by the rich, a chance to be heard

A small donor matching system using public funds would help level the playing field and give politicians a reason to listen to ordinary voters.

SHARE Give candidates who aren’t wealthy, or backed by the rich, a chance to be heard
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Voting at Edward Duke Ellington School, 243 N Parkside Ave., in 2020.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

As Illinois voters face a potential governor’s race between a billionaire and a billionaire-anointed candidate — four years after a race between two billionaires — it’s time to take another look at a smart way to level the playing field.

Small donor matching, which would use public money to amplify small donations from donors to political campaigns, would help candidates get their voices heard even if they are not backed by individuals with deep pockets or special-interest groups.

It also would give candidates a reason to spend more time listening to ordinary people instead of hobnobbing with wealthy donors.

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This year’s Illinois governor’s primary races feature billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker and hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, who is backing Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin. In 2018, former Gov. Bruce Rauner and Pritzker spent a combined $207.4 million when they ran against each other. Try raising that kind of money from people worried about how to make ends meet.

Small donor matching would likely encourage more people to engage in elections, if they see they can make a difference with their donations. They would also likely spend more time researching candidates to see which ones they want to support.

How it works

Under small donor matching systems, public funds are used to match each individual donation below a certain amount. For example, the first $100 to $200 a voter donates would be matched with public funds, perhaps a two-to-one or three-to-one match or more. In New York, the match is six-to-one for the first $175 of donations.

With a six-to one match, a campaign event attracting 100 people who give $50 each could net $35,000 for a candidate. That’s enough to get a candidate’s attention.

For the system to work properly, politicians who agree to accept the public financing would have to sign on to spending caps, contribution limits and enhanced disclosure. To be eligible for matching, candidates would have to show a degree of grassroots support by collecting a certain number of small donations before the matching kicks in.

The funding to match donations would come from government, usually less than 1% of its budget. But that could be a good deal for taxpayers if they get a government that runs more efficiently, provides better services and listens to their priorities.

Past attempts to push small donor financing in Chicago and Illinois have fizzled. But now there is talk in Springfield of making small donor financing part of the new elected Chicago School Board law as a pilot project. And Reform for Illinois is in discussions with Evanston about launching a demonstration project in that city.

Small donor matching is also part of the “For the People Act,” a voting rights bill before Congress. But that bill is stalled in the U.S. Senate.

The push for small donor financing faded after some political campaigns found they could raise significant sums from small donors on the Internet. But that’s a one-way street. The politicians ask for money, but don’t spend time meeting with small donors to hear their concerns. And they are still free to pursue hefty donations from those with deep pockets, to whose opinions they undoubtedly pay close attention.

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In Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out caps on campaign contributions by corporations, unions and other associations. That has opened the door for super-rich individuals in Illinois to shovel mountains of money into political races. It has also opened the door for out-of-state figures, such as Donald Trump, to funnel large sums into Illinois races.

Committed volunteers can still make a difference, knocking on doors and handing out campaign literature. But small donor matching is a tool they need to bring balance to elections.

Wealthy, self-funding candidates and those backed by billionaires can turn out to be good public servants. But over the years, the more candidates who can bring their voices to the marketplace of ideas, the better off the public will be.

In 2015, Chicagoans overwhelmingly approved an advisory referendum in favor of small donor matching. Many voters are tired of campaigns dominated by pay-to-play politics or candidates wealthy enough to fund campaigns.

Small donor matching would give those voters a choice they deserve.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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