In a crowded Evanston Township High School classroom on April 7, Evanstonians heard from a line-up of speakers about the possibilities for campaign finance reform in Evanston. They also had the chance to ask detailed questions of officials and organizers, and to hear from one another.
Much of the discussion focused on two of the most prominent models for campaign finance reform — the “voucher” model and the “matching” model. Both of these models seek to engage more voters from a broader base, and to make running for office possible for those without significant resources.
In 2015 Seattle residents voted for a system that will allow them to contribute to local candidates without spending their own money. Under Seattle’s version of the voucher model each registered voter receives four $25 vouchers they can give to candidates of their choice. Candidates do not have to participate, but those who do have strict limits on private donations and campaign expenditures. The voucher model has been used less than the matching model, which has been used in a number of cities, most prominently New York City.
The model in New York City, which is directed by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, was started in the late ‘80s. Their website describes the program as empowering “more candidates to run for office, even without access to wealth; ones who join can build viable, competitive campaigns for office by relying on support from their neighbors . . . Participating candidates may qualify to receive public matching funds at a $6-to-$1 rate for contributions up to $175 . . . For example, if a NYC resident makes a $10 contribution to a participating candidate, it is actually worth $70 to their campaign. Any candidate running for municipal office (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president, and city council) may join the program.”
During the April 7 meeting at ETHS, State Representative Litesa Wallace, from the 67th district, which includes Rockford, spoke of having been appointed to the General Assembly and the unlikelihood of being elected if she had needed a large campaign fund. “There’s no way I would have had money to do that, because in addition to being a policymaker, I’m a mom – a single mom. The wage disparities that exist for women, for women of color and for mothers is very real. Those wage disparities impact the wealth gap, and the wealth gap impacts whether you have $100,000 or even $1,000 laying around to be the seed money for a campaign . . . That’s just not always an option,” said Representative Wallace.
One of the meeting participants, while noting that they he is supportive of reform, asked where revenues necessary to implement reform would come from. State Senator Daniel Biss said that at the state level closing tax loopholes benefitting corporations “would pay for the financing [of reform models] many, many, many times over.”
Beyond discussions of how campaign finance reform might work in Evanston, a range of related issues came up.
Evanston City Clerk Devon Reid, who attended the meeting, said, “Back in July, the Evanston City Clerk’s office called up Common Cause and began this discussion around fair elections. I’m really proud of the progress that Common Cause and Evanston collectively have made.” The national nonpartisan organization Common Cause focuses on government accountability, equal rights, representation, and engaging people in the political process. About potential reform in Evanston he said, “I’m really supportive of any [campaign finance reform] measure, but more so the voucher model.” Commenting on recent elections, he said that “Big money played a big role in our last primary with our state representative candidates and there we did see a lot of mudslinging.”
Other Evanston residents stopped to talk about their impressions. “I really liked the way they [the speakers] drew a line from campaign financing to who runs and how policy is set . . . We’re not getting represented and policy needs to be dictated from the ground up,” said Marjorie West.
Some participants said that before the meeting they had not known about specific models, others that they had not known anything at all about campaign finance reform. “I came in all for it, but I’m definitely more informed . . . I wasn’t aware of the voucher system,” said Therese Ehrenreich. Her daughter, Katherine Ehrenreich, said that she didn’t know anything about campaign finance reform, but is now in favor of it.
At the close of the meeting, participants learned about next steps, which will include working groups to study the possibilities and related issues that are important to Evanstonians. Discussion continued in the ETHS cafeteria over Hecky’s Barbeque, which catered.
Asked about his reasons for seeing Evanston as ready for campaign finance reform, Senator Biss said, “Evanston has a proud history of being on the front lines of all kinds of reforms, around public safety, criminal justice and policing, and around environmental issues – for years and years and years. I think this [campaign finance reform] is going to be in the absolute forefront in the future and it makes all the sense in the world for Evanston to lead the way.”