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Chicago Aldermen, Advocates Announce ‘Fair Elections’ Ordinance

Ellyn Fortino, Progress Illinois, 3/7/16

A group of Chicago aldermen introduced a "Fair Elections" ordinance at Wednesday's council meeting aimed at installing a local campaign finance system meant to increase the impact of small donors.

The ordinance, supported by the groups Common Cause and the Reclaim Campaign, would create a voluntary small donor matching program in which Chicago public finances would be used in part to pay for elections.

At a morning news conference announcing the ordinance, Jan Rodolfo, of the Reclaim Campaign, said the nation's current campaign finance system is broken.

"We believe that the fair campaign ordinance would amplify the voices of candidates with new ideas who reflect the desires of our communities, amplify the importance of issues over corporate connections by requiring participation in debates and amplify the impact of small donations from within the ward, bringing together fundraising with constituent outreach," she said.

Alds. Michelle Harris (8th), John Arena (45th) and Joe Moore (49th) are among the cosponsors of the measure. 

"This takes the influence from those who can afford to give us big campaign contributions and gives it to the working men and women of our city who can afford to support us at the 5, 10, or 20 dollar range, and then give us the ability to match those dollars so that we can fund our campaign adequately and get our message out," Moore said.

Via a referendum question on the February 24 municipal election ballot, Chicago voters overwhelmingly supported the idea of implementing a small donor campaign finance matching program in the city.

Similar small donor financing programs -- which seek to even the campaign spending playing field in the post-Citizens United era -- have been adopted in jurisdictions including New York, Los Angeles and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Under a Chicago "Fair Elections" system, the mayor, aldermen, treasurer and clerk could participate and receive a 6-to-1 match on donations of up to $175. Participating candidates could not accept donations over $500, and limits would be placed on the amount of public funds they could received. For example, an alderman could receive no more than $150,000 in public funds in a municipal election.

The small donor matching program would not cap spending, because such caps could hinder the ability of candidates to compete with independent expenditures, political action committees (PACs) and super PACs, Common Cause Illinois Executive Director Brian Gladstein explained.

Common Cause estimates that the small donor matching program, if approved, would cost the city approximately $8 million per year. The money, according to the proposal, could be raised in part with a 50 percent hike on lobbyist registration fees, a 5 percent fine increase for campaign finance violations and an optional program allowing Chicagoans to contribute 3 percent of their monthly utility bill cost to the fair elections fund.

"We've got a number of ideas that we're gonna be fleshing out," Moore said of possible funding options for the program. "But keep in mind that this is money that's gonna fund elections that will take out the influence of the special interests and restore confidence and trust, and that is a ... price worth paying at whatever cost."

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