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Denver City Council Places Small Donor Empowerment Program on Nov Ballot

Matching Small Donations Reduces Influence of Big Money, Levels Playing Field for Candidates, Increases Public Participation in Elections
For Immediate Release

This evening, the Denver City Council voted to place on the November ballot a new campaign finance system that candidates can opt-in to that would allow participants to run for office fueled by small donations and average voters. The measure improves upon the previous Democracy for the People measure that will be pulled from the ballot by proponents.

“Our democracy is based on the principle of one person, one vote. But increasingly, our elections are dominated by big money, which drowns out the voice of average voters and erodes faith and trust in our government,” said Danny Katz, Director of CoPIRG.

“We need to modernize Denver’s campaign laws and create a program that will empower all Denver voters—not just those who can give large amounts—to have a more meaningful voice in our city elections,” said Amanda Gonzalez, Executive Director Colorado Common Cause. 

Currently, Denver’s campaign finance system, which has high contribution limits and allows direct contributions from businesses, encourages candidates to focus their fundraising on generating large, sometimes corporate dollars. For example, a mayoral candidate can accept a contribution of $3,000, higher than Congress members and the Colorado gubernatorial candidates. This undermines the principle of one person, one vote. 

Groups supporting tonight’s vote include CoPIRG, Colorado Common Cause, Colorado Working Families Party, and the Denver Area Labor Federation. 

The reform that Denver City Council approved, and voters will see on their ballot in November, would make three major changes:

  1. Lower contribution limits by 2/3s to be more in line with other offices in Colorado.
  2. Eliminate direct business contributions to candidates and create a committee system that mirrors other races in Colorado including creating small donor committees that take in small donations.
  3. Create a new small donor empowerment program that candidates can opt-in to that would match any small donation of $50 or less with a 9 to 1 public match. Only candidates that have generated a certain number of contributions and thus demonstrated public support are eligible for the system. All unused public matching dollars are returned to the fund after the election.

A number of cities and counties around the country have adopted small donor matching programs.

  • In November 2015, over sixty percent of Seattle voters approved I-122, a comprehensive set of reforms, including the creation of a democracy voucher that voters could give to chosen candidates, intended to make the campaign process for local office more inclusive. Available data from Seattle shows that the democracy voucher program has already spurred impressive levels of engagement, particularly among younger voters.
  • Since 1988, candidates for public office in New York City have used a matching funds program to raise their campaign funds from average voters and not special interests. In the last four election cycles, 92% of candidates elected to city wide office participated in the small donor program. In 2013, those candidates raised 94% of their money from individuals with more than two thirds of that money in contributions of $175 or less.
  • In Maryland, Montgomery and Howard Counties have established small donor campaign finance systems. Montgomery County's program was in effect for the first time for the 2018 elections. To participate, candidates must reject contributions over $150 and money from corporations. As of the campaign finance filings in January, a Maryland PIRG analysis found:
  • Candidates who had qualified received nearly twice as many donations from Montgomery County residents than those not participating.
  • Those not participating received only 8% of their donations from people giving less than $150, while those participating received more than 90% of their donations from people giving less than $150.
  • By the June primary, more than half of all candidates, over 30 total, participated in the program. Ultimately, 22 qualified for the program – candidates from both parties and from a wide range of backgrounds who were able to run competitive campaigns based on support from the communities, not large donors.  

A diverse range of groups testified in favor of the Denver City Council proposal at a key committee hearing in August. The message from that hearing was clear - Denver would benefit from a campaign finance system that empowers Denver voters with a small donor matching program. These public dollars provide the support for candidates to run a campaign fueled by average voters not large donors. This in turn would empower more Denver residents to participate and contribute to local elections and help support a voting system where everyone is on equal footing no matter the size of their wallet. 

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