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'What a Healthy Democracy Should Look Like': Connecticut Small-Dollar Campaign Program a Model for Restoring Power to the People

New report details how state initiative leveled the playing field for candidates and ultimately led to better legislative outcomes for communities.

A woman drops her Connecticut 2020 presidential primary ballot at a secure ballot drop box at a Stamford library on August 11, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Connecticut's statewide small-dollar donor program has resulted in more competitive races, allowed new voices to get elected, and led to better government policies, according to a report released Thursday by advocacy group Common Cause.

We must lift up the inspiring model of citizens’ reclaiming their government from wealthy special interests.
—Beth Rotman, Common Cause

"The small-dollar donor experiment in Connecticut is working and the state has become a national model," Beth Rotman, national director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause and author of the report, said in a statement.

"Ordinary citizens are more empowered to participate in democracy and better represented by those elected to office," she continued. "The legislature is more representative of the people. This is what a healthy democracy should look like and it is setting a new standard of reform that inspires others to make changes across our nation."

The Citizens' Election Program (CEP), enacted in 2008, is a voluntary program in which candidates for statewide and state legislative offices must agree to fundraising and spending restrictions and demonstrate public support by raising between $5,000 and $250,000—depending on the office sought—from small-dollar donors. Those contributions can be between $5 and $100 each. Once those conditions are met, candidates receive grant money from the program, which is funded primarily from the sale of abandoned property in the state's custody.

In its analysis of the CEP's first decade, Common Cause found overwhelming evidence that the program benefited the democratic process in Connecticut. Researchers found:

  • Candidates participate - From 2008 to 2018 an average of 75% of all state legislative candidates joined the CEP. In 2018, a record 85% of General Assembly candidates joined.
  • Small-dollar donors dominate - in 2018, 99% of campaign funds used by state legislative candidates came from individuals, and the majority of those were from within a candidate's district.
  • Races are more competitive - Following implementation of the CEP, Connecticut rose to the eighth most competitive state, and has continued to rank in the top three. In 2018 the state was ranked first in the nation for monetary competitiveness.
  • New voices get elected - The percentage of women elected to the state legislature increased by 33%.
  • Better government policies - Following elections in which candidates ran under the program, Connecticut's legislature passed the nation's first paid sick leave policy for service workers, the nation's first Genetically Modified Organisms labeling bill, and voted to return nearly $24 million annually in unclaimed bottle deposits back to the public—a measure lawmakers failed to pass previously due to pressure from industry lobbyists.

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"We are at a time in this nation when many Americans are engaged and demanding change," Rotman wrote. "So, we are already on the journey to strengthening our democracy. There is a spirit of hopefulness even in this extraordinarily challenging time, but many need to understand how we can 'fix' our money-in-politics addiction in America."

In November, voters in Oregon and Alaska will decide on campaign finance reform laws proposed through citizen ballot initiatives. Oregon's measure, if passed, would limit campaign contributions and expenditures, require disclosure of contributions and expenditures, and require that political advertisements identify the people or entities that paid for them. In Alaska, campaign finance reform is integrated into a ranked choice voting initiative. It would require disclosure of political contributions of $2,000 or more, replace partisan primaries with an open top-four system, and enact ranked choice voting.

In the report, Rotman argued that educating the public about electoral reform will be crucial to enacting it beyond Connecticut's borders.

"Many everyday Americans are unaware of the link between these reforms and their day-to-day lives," she wrote. "There is a price we all pay within our family budgets when wealthy special interests fund the campaigns, political parties, and set the agenda with lobbying."

"This needs to change, both in order to protect the reforms that have passed and to educate more of the public across the country about the need to pass these reforms in their own communities," Rotman continued.

"We must lift up the inspiring model of citizens' reclaiming their government from wealthy special interests. To deliver fully on this promise of small-dollar donor democracy and enable everyday Americans to understand the link between their day-to-day lives and their financing of elections, education is critical," she wrote. "This education protects the existing reforms and will help with the passage of the program in new cities and states."

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