D.C.’s Fair Elections Act would give more power to the already powerful

David Keating is president of and Thomas Wheatley is an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan organization that promotes and defends First Amendment rights.

The D.C. public trough may soon have another mouth to feed: politicians.

The so-called Fair Elections Act, a measure that would provide a 5-to-1 tax financing match on small-dollar donations to D.C. candidates, got unanimous approval from the D.C. Council on Jan. 9. A final vote is expected next month.

The sponsor marketed the proposal as giving more people a bigger voice. That’s nonsense. Not only is Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) right in calling it a waste of money, but also the measure is nothing more than a grand experiment likely to turbocharge the power of special-interest groups and incentivize fraud by candidates.

For starters, the proposal is biased in favor of a new form of political entity called a “Fair Elections Committee.” The fine print allows for contributions from “membership organizations” (labor unions) to count as small-dollar donations. Candidates who receive financial support from a “membership organization” may still receive public financing, but a candidate who gets a similar donation from, say, a small business won’t. The provision was so blatantly discriminatory that the ACLU of the District of Columbia rightly opposed that provision, saying, “Labor unions do not have greater First Amendment rights than other kinds of organizations.”

Moreover, a tax-funded system creates a tremendous incentive for candidates to cheat. This is because the tax-funding match is initially far more generous than it appears. The first $5,000 raised by a candidate in a D.C. Council race, for example, would be matched by $65,000 in tax funds — a 13-to-1 ma tch. The risk of fraud is beyond speculation; in virtually every jurisdiction where tax-financed campaign financing has been tried — including in New York City, Los Angeles and Arizonacandidates have attempted to obtain and use campaign funds fraudulently.

There’s no reason to think the District would be different. Indeed, it could be a lot worse. The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance is often viewed as asleep at the switch, with failures to enforce deadlines, competently maintain evidence or responsibly manage public money. The inclusion of a simple, one-time audit, as the D.C. measure would provide, would do little to ameliorate these structural weaknesses.

In addition, the measure is obviously an exercise in incumbency protection. An incumbent with an established donor base and prior familiarity with D.C.’s political machinery would have a clear advantage over a political newcomer. The Fair Elections Act exacerbates that advantage by affording incumbents the chance to raise tax-matched donations earlier than challengers who emerge later in the election cycle.

Finally, D.C. residents should prepare themselves to see their dollars eventually used to subsidize abhorrent exercises in speech. New York City taxpayers recently gave Thomas Lopez-Pierre $99,000 to help his anti-Semitic campaign, which vowed to make “greedy Jewish Landlords” pay for their “ethnic cleansing.”

D.C.’s Fair Elections Act is unlikely to give a voice to the voiceless, but it will almost certainly give more power to the already powerful. Only time will tell whether the idea is worth its $20 million price tag, but at this point, D.C. residents should curb their expectations.