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Reform advocates propose 'small donor revolution'

August 22, 2012|By Matea Gold

Calling for a “small donor revolution,” campaign finance reform advocates on Wednesday laid out a plan for average citizens to wrest back the influence that mega-donors have had in this year’s elections.

The proposal by the Brennan Center and Democracy 21 is modeled after the small donor matching program in New York City and would provide a five-to-one match for in-state donations of up to $250 in congressional races. Participating candidates would have to agree to halve the maximum contribution they could receive from an individual from $2,500 to $1,250.

Their incentive: They could get as much as $2 million in public funds for a House race and $10 million for a Senate race, but would not have to limit their expenditures, so as to be able to better compete with "super PACs" and other outside groups.

Participating candidates would also be able to coordinate unlimited expenditures with their political party, as long as the party money was raised in increments of $1,250 or less.

“We want to see elections flooded with small donations from millions of citizens,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “We want to provide candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns without having to sell their souls to influence-seeking funders.”

Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, said the matching program could “transform candidates into agents of civic participation.”

He noted that New York had seen substantial success with its small donor system, which matches contributions up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now working to expand the program statewide.

The cost of the program was estimated at roughly $700 million a year, a tab Wertheimer suggested could be covered in part by a voluntary check-off program.

The authors said they are currently working to find congressional backing for the proposal.

Wertheimer acknowledged the challenges of passing new campaign reform measures, but added that he believed the idea would appeal to lawmakers weary of combating outside money in their races.

“I don’t believe members of Congress like the idea of political drones dive-bombing into their elections with millions and millions of dollars, and not having any way to protect themselves,” he said.

Democrats have several campaign finance reform measures pending in Congress, including the DISCLOSE Act and Fair Elections Now Act, which would also provide funding to candidates who raised a certain amount from small donors.

Some reform advocates believe the latter provides the best mechanism to boost the influence of small contributions.

“We welcome a discussion about the best way to empower small donors in the political process, but we think John Larson's Fair Elections Now Act strikes the right balance to incentivize small donor fundraising without tipping the scales to big donors, which this new proposal — with its fundraising threshold above $250 for participating candidates — could do,” said Adam Smith, a spokesman for the group Public Campaign.

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