Members of the League of Women Voters of Evanston (LWVE) and David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR), convened a meeting at the Main Library on Oct. 18 to discuss the potential for campaign finance reform in Illinois.

The meeting was part of ICPR’s 2014 initiative “Promoting Democracy in Illinois,” one aspect of which is urging the communities of Evanston and Oak Park to enact campaign-financing reform legislation at the municipal level with the hope that the example will trickle up to the state level.

Local legislation could create a local campaign fund that would match small contributions on a one-to-one or even greater basis. “The key to making this successful is making the [funding] limit high enough for candidates to feel they can run a competitive campaign,” Mr. Melton said.

According to information from ICPR, New Haven, Connecticut, created the New Haven Democracy Fund in 2007 as a way to fund mayoral elections. The system is voluntary, and candidates who opt in must agree to limits on certain things such as contributions – including their own personal contributions – and total spending. Contributions to candidates are matched from the fund, the size of the contribution determining the size of the match.

Several other communities across the country have adopted similar systems, the most recent one being Montgomery County, Maryland, said Mr. Melton.

Such systems can be “closed” – that is, closed to contributions and spending other than those provided through the system – or “open” – that is, allowing candidates to accept other contributions, but some systems may impose limitations on contributions.

State Senator Daniel Biss, who attended the meeting, said, “I think you’re painting a dystopia – a nightmare for Illinois.” Billionaires can still win elections, he said. He asked how the funds would be indexed for inflation. Mr. Melton said that could be determined when the fund is created.

“What is the trade-off? What are the candidates giving up?” asked Sen. Biss.

“As an example, they might have to forgo certain types of contributions,” said Mr. Melton. Evanston had such a system in place, then candidates for aldermen or mayor might have to forgo contributions from people working for the City, he said.

Michelle Jordan of the League of Women Voters of Evanston said such systems are a “tool to invigorate democracy.  … People feel more invested in the process.”

She also said an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice showed that with such systems in place, “the number of women and minority candidates has gone up. … Perception is a big part of that.”

“Some people feel alienated from the system,” said Sen. Biss.

“This [having a system like this] is the farm team [to counteract] the perception that some have that they have to wait for a rich benefactor to tap them on the shoulder,” said Ms. Jordan.

Whether Evanstonians would accept such a system is unclear. Sue Calder of the LWVE said she had spoken to most of the members of City Council, and “In general, all were favorable to looking at it – not opposed to the concept.” One alderman, she said, refused to speak with her, but among those who did speak with her, there appeared to be a consensus that the idea “could be refined.”

Mr. Melton said the LWVE and the ICPR will continue to recruit a diverse group of people in both Evanston and Oak Park who would be interested in working toward developing local ordinances creating campaign financing systems and bringing them to the respective City Councils for approval.

“We can be a model for Illinois,” said Ms. Jordan.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...