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Testimony to Connecticut General Assembly on Public Financing

Let us be the champions for a more accountable democracy
Monday, February 12, 2018

Testimony of Wendy Fields Executive Director Democracy Initiative 
Before the Government Administration and Elections Committee 

February 9, 2018 

 

I. Introduction 

My name is Wendy Fields and I am the Executive Director of the Democracy Initiative, a dynamic coalition of issue-based groups working collectively to advance democracy reforms across the country. We are 64 partners from the labor, environment, and civil rights movement representing over 40 million members – tens of thousands of whom live in Connecticut. Our shared vision for a 21st century democracy is clear: all citizens should be able to participate freely in the democratic process and have their voice heard.  

The Democracy Initiative has mobilized members across the country to stand up for a democracy that works for all, not just corporate or big money interests. Participation is essential for our members to be able to advocate for the kitchen table issues that matter most – from clean water to criminal justice reforms to a living wage.  

A reflective democracy is centered on the needs of the people and reflected in our budgets, our policies, and our programs. Our members demand fair and clean elections because it stems the tide of corruption and prioritizes issues that move us forward as a community.  

Egregious Supreme Court decisions have allowed corporations and wealthy donors to flood our political system. To combat the destructive influence of big money in politics, cities, counties and states across the country have enacted innovative and common sense campaign finance reforms.  

Connecticut has led the way with the Citizens’ Election Program, a common sense public financing program that has made a positive impact on our democracy for candidates, elected officials, constituents, and the community as a whole. There are 27 active public financing programs across the country from Maine to Arizona, to Maryland and Washington state. In addition, several cities, counties, and states are considering public financing programs thanks to the groundswell of demand from grassroots advocates. 

We cannot overlook that as programs like CEP continue to bring more people into the democratic process, public financing is a thorn in the side for big money and corporate special interests advancing an agenda that benefits the few and not the many. In the 2016 election alone, the financial sector poured $2.6 billion into U.S. elections, and corporations are now reaping the benefits of huge tax incentives and weakened consumer protection enforcement.  

It is estimated that 40 million fewer Americans will participate in the 2018 elections – critical elections for local and state offices that impact people’s lives in the most direct way. We, at the Democracy Initiative, know that public financing increases participation and gives everyday people ownership of the process. Connecticut experienced record high turnout in 2016 (77%) and we need to ensure more voters, not less, can participate in democracy. 

We applaud the Legislature for not eliminating the program but raise concerns with some measures included in Public Act 17-2 that would weaken the ability of ordinary citizens to have a meaningful voice in our elections.  

I strongly urge the GAE committee to make sure that changes to the Citizens’ Election Program preserve a democracy that is of, by, and for the people – not corporate and big moneyed interests.  

Today, I want to expand on why public financing matters to the membership of our coalition. We are passionate about public financing because we know it makes a difference. It changes how everyday people participate in democracy. It changes who candidates and elected officials spend their time listening to during elections and in office. It changes the way we govern and what policies are discussed. 

 

II. Creating a Reflective, 21st Century Democracy 

A 2013 study by DI partner Demos on the impact of public financing in Connecticut reveals the seismic change public financing can have on our elections. Public financing shifts the focus of candidates and legislators to the people where it belongs. Many of you (and your colleagues) in the General Assembly know the positive impacts of public financing as it relates to fundraising and policymaking. There are three main findings from the study that I want to bring to your attention: 

  1. Now the General Assembly is the People’s House. Public financing is creating a more reflective General Assembly. It opens the door for more people of color and women to run and win elected office. We see more working class and middle class representation in elected office. Secretary of State Denise Merrill noted that “public financing definitely made the legislature more diverse. There are many more people of color, more young people, more women, and more young women.” 

    There has been a 33 percent increase in the number of Latino state legislators since 2010, a significant shift for communities of color that have been underrepresented. And despite being 51 percent of the population, women are underrepresented at all levels of government. We have seen increases in the number of women elected to the House and Senate since 2006 helping to bring more gender parity to the legislature.  

    The 40 million members that make up the Democracy Initiative represent working and middle class families, students, immigrants, and seniors. DI partners recognize that a democracy that widens the circle so more can participate, strengthens society as a whole. A legislature that is reflective of the community – whether we’re talking about race, class, or gender – is one that moves us forward on the critical issues impacting all of us. 

    For too many marginalized communities, their financial participation has been limited. The CEP offers all communities tangible ways to be active civic participants in their democracy. If we believe in a democracy for all, we must strengthen the Citizens’ Election Program so more people have the chance to participate.  

  2. We have more people-powered candidates and elected officials. More and more elected officials are choosing to run under the public financing system. In 2012, seventy-seven percent of elected legislators participated in the program. It’s a recognition that small donor programs give legislators more time to spend with constituents instead of dialing for dollars. 

    Many current and former legislators praise the fact that they can focus more on constituents and on developing bipartisan policy solutions. It’s a testament to a system that works when 80 percent of all state candidates build their campaigns around individual small donors – not special interests from state contractors or PACs. 
     
  3. A shift to people-driven policymaking. The interests of working and middle class people can be seen in the policies adopted by the General Assembly. From paid sick leave to the Dream Act to funding conservation and public programs, we see policies that are centered on the interests of people, not big moneyed interests. 

    The legislature has been willing to take on bold policies that support working and middle class families as well as immigrant communities. For example: 
  • Workers are the engine of our economy, yet more than 41 million U.S. workers (and more than half of Latino workers) have no option for paid sick leave. Connecticut became the first state to require companies to provide paid sick leave and has passed minimum wage increases since publicly-financed legislators came into office. Strong economic policies allow employees to thrive, and create a healthy and just workplace. 
  • The state legislature passed the Dream Act to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students. It affirms the need to both welcome and support all residents in the state, and encourage higher education opportunities for all communities. 

  • We’ve seen the legislature invest in programs to protect our people and our planet by using unclaimed bottle deposits as a funding source for the people’s budget, instead of private business profit. 

It is clear that when people can support candidates focused on advancing community solutions, it means our voice truly does matter in the political process. This is what a 21st century democracy looks like. 

III. Big Money Out, People-Power In 

There are some who are attempting to weaken or eliminate campaign finance laws in order to increase the political power of corporate and big money donors. Since Citizens United, we’ve seen corporations flood money into our elections to advance candidates with little to no accountability to the people. We must repair this breach that undermines the confidence of Americans that democracy is of, by and for the people.  

Particularly in Connecticut, we must address attempts by some to exploit independent expenditures to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. As the GAE committee considers possible changes to the CEP, I encourage you to look at the solutions offered from the grassroots movement to advance public financing. 

Our diverse coalition is active in Connecticut and across the country because we know that public financing, like the Citizens’ Election Program, is the levy that holds back the flood of big money and corruption. Connecticut has one of the longest public financing programs in the country that has served as a model for what is possible in many of the 27 cities, counties, and states that have adopted public financing. Our DI partners are mobilizing their members across the U.S. to blunt the influence of corporate and big money in our politics and governing. The success and growing demand for small donor programs are all about empowering voters to have a stronger voice, encouraging community candidates to run, holding leaders accountable, and pushing back on corporate and big money interests that try to sway our elections and our policies. 

Let me share some examples of innovative public financing programs that are being advanced by the grassroots: 

  • D.C. Fair Elections – The D.C. Council passed the Fair Elections Act of 2017 this week. Candidates who participate in the program agree to only accept money from individuals. Contributions from residents are matched on a scale, giving small donors the ability to support local grassroots candidates who will represent their interests, not corporations and big money donors. In addition, the Council established the option for Fair Elections Committees so membership groups can collectively give small contributions to candidates of their choice. The grassroots coalition advancing Fair Elections knows this program will empower residents to have a stronger voice in advocating for their kitchen table issues – especially for low income residents and communities of color. 

  • Maryland: Montgomery and Howard Counties – Maryland counties are truly a laboratory for democracy innovation on public financing. Montgomery County, the largest county in Maryland, adopted public financing in 2014 and their first election under the program is underway with tremendous interest and support. The Public Election Fund in the county offers up to a 6-to-1 match on contributions from a resident to a candidate participating in the program. So far, there are 35 candidates running for district and county-wide offices participating in the program. A report from Maryland PIRG (a DI partner) shows that candidates participating in the program are raising more money from a larger pool of donors compared to candidates that have opted out of the program. 

    In 2016, voters in Howard County passed the Citizens’ Election Fund, a public financing program similar to Montgomery County. The fair elections campaign mobilized diverse members through the intersectionality of social, economic, and climate issues relevant to residents in Howard County. Howard County will hold their first election with public financing in 2022. 

  • Seattle, Washington – In 2017, the Seattle primary featured an innovative small donor matching program called, Democracy Vouchers. Eligible residents received four $25 vouchers that they could use to support candidates of their choice. More than 45,000 vouchers were given to eligible candidates. Two candidates - who built their campaign funding on the extensive use of vouchers - beat a big business-backed candidate. The voucher program saw thousands of Seattle residents making small donations to candidates and the program encouraged many candidates to reject big-money donations. It shows that everyday people can have an equal voice, not just corporations or wealthy special interests. 

Quite simply, small donor programs work because they shift the focus to engagement and participation, increase diversity in who is running and winning, and remove the influence of corporate and big money in our policymaking.  

IV. Conclusion 

The Citizens’ Election Program is a small investment that has a meaningful impact on the quality and integrity of our political system. Slashing the program will make citizens pay the price and allow the corruption of the past to creep back into our system. 

There is overwhelming support for public financing – 80% of residents support the Citizens’ Election Program. We cannot turn back to a time when our politics was a reflection of corporate interests and corruption. The GAE committee and entire legislature have the chance to show all residents in Connecticut that people come first. Weakening the program sends the wrong message by putting special interests ahead of citizens. 

A stronger democracy starts with citizens being at the center of our policymaking and our politics. The GAE committee should listen to the many people who are demanding a democracy that works for all, not the wealthy few who want to keep power for themselves.  

Let us be the champions for a more accountable democracy by supporting a strong Citizens' Election Program.