Fair Elections – a transformative win for D.C.

This week, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed and committed to fund the Fair Elections Act into law, a little over a month after the D.C. Council unanimously voted to pass the bill. Citing grassroots pressure and activism, the Mayor said she was persuaded by the passion of D.C. residents who want to strengthen our democracy. Since 2015, this has been a top priority for D.C. Working Families, as a number of our staff have worked with and helped lead the DC Fair Elections coalition.

Fair Elections is about more than campaign finance reform or addressing the influence of big money in our elections. The story of this campaign, which has been boosted by the voices of everyday D.C. residents at every turn, in many ways reflects the type of community that we are hoping Fair Elections will help build.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Fair Elections Act would allow candidates for local office to opt in to a program that would require them to forego corporate and PAC contributions, accept low contribution limits and collect a set number of contributions from D.C. residents in order to qualify. In return, they would receive a grant to cover startup costs on their campaign and have all of their contributions from residents matched 5:1, making a $5 contribution count for $30 when $25 in public funds are added. Contribution limits would be set at $50 for Ward Council, $100 for At-Large, $150 for Council Chair and attorney general, and $200 for mayor. The program is estimated to cost less than .05 percent of D.C.’s annual budget.

Supporters celebrating the D.C. Council’s unanimous passage of the Fair Elections Act in February 2018

For me, this effort began in 2015, when I began working with what eventually became the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition, a group convened by organizations like D.C. Working Families, D.C. for Democracy, Public Citizen, D.C. Fair Budget Coalition, Demos, and Every Voice. Later other allies like ONE D.C., D.C. Sierra Club, and Dexter Williams, our Ward 7 Chair, joined to help lead the campaign. For others, the fight began even earlier when Councilmember David Grosso introduced a similar bill in 2013. Eventually, the coalition grew to include more than 70 groups signed on in support, ranging from ANCs and civic associations to organized labor and racial justice organizations. More than 5,000 D.C. residents, more than 80 community leaders from all eight wards, and every single member of D.C. Council eventually lent their name in support of our campaign.

This broad and diverse group of organizations and individuals came together around Fair Elections because it represented an opportunity to shift the balance of power in the District. Amplifying the voices of small donors who are D.C. residents means amplifying the voices of people of color, women, young people, and low-income individuals and families. Each of these groups are less likely to have access to the wealth needed to cut a $500 or $1,000 check that many local campaigns rely on, and thus are less likely to run for office themselves or to feel empowered to contribute to campaigns that they support. People who can afford to write those checks are more likely to be wealthy, white, and male when compared to the District as a whole.

When every day D.C. residents feel empowered to contribute to campaigns, and have those contributions matched with public dollars, that leads to louder voices in favor of affordable housing, police accountability and community safety, equitable development and budgets, and education. That louder voice means better outcomes and more power and influence for working families in D.C., which means a more inclusive and fair city for everyone. That means not just promoting racial equity in our democracy, but in people’s daily lives and in the issues that affect their wallet and their ability to thrive.

Fair Elections represents a lot more than a win for good government. It represents the kind of transformative change that moves power and influence into the hands of every day people that D.C. Working Families exists to fight for.

Fair Elections alone will not address our affordable housing crisis and reorient the District government’s priorities to better reflect the needs of long-term or low-income D.C. residents, but this victory is an important step towards building a D.C. where everyone can thrive, and we will continue that fight as we have on Paid Family Leave, Fight for $15, and our other ongoing campaigns and past victories.

Stay tuned and vigilant to make sure this program is fully funded this year, stays fully funded, and is faithfully implemented in time for the 2020 election. Thank you to every single organization and individual who lent your voice to get this landmark reform enacted into law. This campaign and all of our work would not be possible without you.

Onward!

Zach Weinstein

Campaigns Manager, DC Working Families