Thank you to Quad-City Times editorial board for its editorial on Sunday, "In Illinois, only billionaires can run for governor," highlighting the disturbing evidence that vast personal wealth appears to be a prerequisite for running a competitive campaign for the highest elected office in Illinois. Unfortunately, access to big money -- whether from personal wealth or access and appeal to an incredibly small pool of elite megadonors -- is increasingly critical to run competitive campaigns at all levels of government.
A recent analysis by Illinois PIRG Education Fund found that, so far this year, 97 percent of money raised by gubernatorial candidates came from donors giving $1,000 or more, while less than 2 percent has come from donors giving less than $150. While some variation exists among candidates, the general pattern is crystal clear: The money fueling campaigns for governor is coming from a small number of donors who have the resources to give at levels average citizens just cannot afford. This runs counter to the democratic principle that we all have equal say, and the size of your wallet does not determine the size of your voice in public life.
Through this "money primary," candidates are sorted and filtered by their ability to raise big money from elite donors before voters have the opportunity to weigh in. In response, good government groups have coalesced around small donor empowerment reform efforts, which allow candidates to run competitive campaigns even if they do not have access to, or choose to forgo, big money, while having a strong base of grassroots support.
There are successful, proven models to empower small donors so that their voices play a more central role in our democracy. For example, in New York City’s 2013 City Council campaigns, small donors were responsible for 61 percent of participating candidates’ contributions when funds from a matching program were included. All but two of the winning candidates participated in the program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking for large-dollar contributions.
On May 16th, the Illinois Senate passed bipartisan legislation that would create a small donor matching system for Illinois state-level elections. While such a system would never allow small donor funded candidates to raise the same level of campaign funds as a self-funding billionaire, it would allow them to run more competitive campaigns, giving voters more viable choices.
While I welcome a complete overhaul of our campaign finance system at the federal level, as the editorial board called for, Illinois can, and should, take reform into their own hands. Our democracy depends on it.