Baltimore County Voters Move Toward Public Matching Fund for Candidates

graphic
File photo.

Preliminary election results showed that more than 55% of voters signed off on creating an election fund that would match small donations for local candidates in Baltimore County, a measure advocates say would create fairer elections in the county.

The charter amendment would create a Citizens’ Election Fund system in the county, establishing a public trust that, starting in 2026, would match small donations for county council and county executive candidates. It also would establish a commission within the county that would determine details and provide for funding of the program. Participation would be voluntary for candidates.

Voting rights advocates celebrated the amendment’s anticipated passage on Wednesday. In a statement, advocates called the amendment’s passage a “monumental step” in making elections more accessible to candidates in Baltimore County.

Creating a public financing system for elections in Baltimore County was one of Democratic County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr.’s promises during his 2018 campaign. Olszewski’s proposal received bipartisan support from the Baltimore County Council, which cleared the way for the charter amendment to appear on the 2020 ballot.

In a statement, Olszewski invoked former Baltimore County politician and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973 during a high profile corruption scandal.

“The volume of one’s voice should never be dependent on the size of their pockets,” Olszewski said. “With this fair election fund we can take a critical step to bring Baltimore County out of the shadow of Spiro Agnew, tackle the influence of big money and special interests in our local politics, and help empower a more diverse field of candidates across our county.”

Candidates who opt into the election fund program would be bound to strict ethics rules, and wouldn’t be able to accept large donations, such as are typical from lobbyists or political action committees.

Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr said that voters’ approval of the amendment sends a strong message about what Baltimore County residents want from their candidates.

“When campaigns are dominated by large and corporate donors, we all lose. In passing Question A, voters have sent a clear message to the County Council that Baltimore County residents should have a voice in local government regardless of how much money they have,” Scarr said in a statement from PIRG.

Running for office in Baltimore County is expensive. According to Common Cause/Maryland, four candidates for county executive in 2018 raised over $1 million dollars each during their campaigns, and the winning candidate, Olszewski, raised more than $2.2 million.

Howard and Montgomery counties already have similar programs. Prince George’s County passed a similar law in 2018, though it won’t take effect until the 2026 election cycle.

Joanne Antoine, the executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said an election fund makes running for office more feasible for traditionally underrepresented groups.

“The Citizens’ Election Fund can expand opportunities to run for office, so more women and people of color can compete for County Council and County Executive races,” Antoine said in a statement.

But results aren’t final, and as of Wednesday afternoon Baltimore County officials were still processing ballots cast on Election Day. Also, local boards of elections in Maryland will accept mail-in ballots until the morning of Nov. 13.

[email protected]

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include reaction from Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr.