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Abe Scarr,
Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Small donor program could reshape campaign fundraising in Cook County State's Attorney race, new report shows

Study reveals the potential impact of a small donor empowerment program on campaigns in the 2016 Democratic Primary
For Immediate Release

Candidates in the 2016 Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic primary race would see a dramatic shift in fundraising focus under a proposed small donor matching program, according to a study released today by Illinois PIRG Education Fund. Using year-end fundraising data, the report examines the impact of a program that matches small contributions from constituents with limited public funds for candidates who agree not to accept large donations.

“From Governor to State Representative to Alderman, constituents making small contributions are playing an increasingly small role in financing political campaigns in Illinois” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director. “This study shows that we can do something about it. Small donor programs would turn big money politics on its head, putting everyday Americans at the center of campaigns instead of deep pocketed donors.”

Illinois PIRG Education Fund’s study examines the impact of a small donor matching system similar to those proposed in Senator Durbin’s Fair Elections Now Act (S. 1538) and the Chicago Fair Elections Ordinance, introduced in January, which proposes a program that would match small contributions with public funds at a rate of six-to-one and establish lower maximum contribution limits for participating candidates.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Without a small donor matching system, candidates received only 4% of the campaign funds from donors giving under $150. If all candidates participated, 84% of campaign funds would come from donors giving $150 or less, along with corresponding matching funds.
  • Currently, 46% of all candidate funds have come from individuals who do not live in Cook County, corporations and other campaign committees. Under a small donor program that still allowed for contributions from those sources, but capped the amount participating candidates could accept, only 16% of all candidate funds would come from those sources.
  • At the end of the last full reporting period, Alvarez had a fundraising lead of $142,000 over Foxx. If both participated in a small donor matching program, Foxx would lead Alvarez by $210,000. This is because, while Foxx has raised less money under the current system, she has done so from a wider pool of donors. If Foxx participated but Alvarez did not, Foxx would still have an advantage of $40,000.
  • In order to fare as well as they would by not opting to participate in a small donor matching program, Alvarez would need to increase her small donor fundraising by 45%. More would need to increase her small donor fundraising by 255%.

Seventy-two percent of Americans, a broad, bipartisan majority, support small-donor solutions to overhaul the current campaign-finance system, according to a poll released in December.

Small donor matching programs have a track record of success. New York City’s program allowed participating candidates in the 2013 city council race to raise 61 percent of their contributions from small donations and matching funds. That year, 92 percent of candidates running in the primary participated in the program.

In November, voters in Maine and Seattle passed ballot initiatives to create and strengthen their own small donor empowerment programs. In 2016, voters and lawmakers have an opportunity to enact similar reforms in states and cities across the country, including in Chicago, where on January 13th Aldermen Joe Moore, Michelle Harris and John Arena introduced the Fair Elections Ordinance, which would create a small donor program for Chicago Elections.

“Our campaign finance system is broken. Voters know it, candidates know it, and it is time we do something about it.” said Scarr. “This study demonstrates the promise of a small donor empowerment program that would put regular voters in control of our elections.”

Click here for a copy of “Boosting the Impact of Small Donors: How Matching Funds Would Reshape the Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic Primary.”

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