I was privileged to be a panelist at a forum on small-donor democracy on Sept. 18, hosted by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) at DePaul University.

This was a natural follow-up to our community forum on July 2, in which we had a lively community discussion on this topic. I would like to continue the conversation and hope my fellow Oak Parkers do, too.

Small-donor democracy basically is a program where candidates for local office raise a certain level of small donations from local residents, which are then matched from a publicly administered fund.

Why would this be good for local governments?

In a word: Change. Cities benefit from having lots of candidates with diverse life experiences who are willing to run for office to help solve problems and invest in the future. Even smaller towns have many residents who would qualify, but many may not think it is financially possible to run. Or they may not fit the mission of organizations that endorse candidates. 

Candidates with business, financial, and risk-management backgrounds can bring their real-life experience — and new ways of thinking — to the task of solving complex problems. Think about this: Almost every penny of a city’s revenue — whether from property tax, sale tax, licenses or fees — is already spoken for before a new official is even sworn in! Cities and towns are obligated to satisfy the commitments of the past. They would benefit from having new, creative thinkers to help find financial breathing room to invest in the future. For example, here in Oak Park we need a revolutionary change in how we think about technology at village hall and how we can use it to serve Oak Parkers better.

Residents are entitled to an open-minded and informed debate about their shared concerns. The same old approaches and the same old thinking will not produce that debate. When a candidate asks for your vote, she is asking for your permission to make decisions for you. A good elected official can do that by being open to others’ viewpoints and thoughtfully debating the issues that affect you and your pocketbook.

Finally, small-donor democracy can help residents be more invested in their government. By giving a small amount to a candidate you believe in, and having it matched in order to help her run a competitive campaign, you are essentially helping to ensure that the issues you care about have a chance of being addressed. It is an unfortunate truth that democracy costs money, and whoever pays for our democracy calls the shots. Why shouldn’t that be you?

Public matching funds would ultimately come from residents’ tax dollars. However, ICPR’s studies have found that existing matching programs range from 0.01% to 0.05% of cities’ budgets. Complacency has cost cities and towns much more than that.

I look forward to continuing this conversation with you. 

More information about small-donor democracy is available at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s website: www.ilcampaign.org. ICPR is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

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