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Small donor fundraising for City Council Elections

Published: Aug 21, 2017

Fundraising is the one part of you would most definitely need help with if this is your first time running for an election. Even incumbent candidates or those with experience in campaigns have to figure out their fundraising strategy well in advance of the actual campaign.

Fundraising also varies a lot between campaigns for local and national elections. Candidates often have to cater to major donors and collaborate with special interest groups to reach funding requirements in a large-scale campaign.

Some measures have been taken to curb the influence of big money in politics. These are in the form of public financing programs where small donor contributions take center stage while there is a cap on maximum donation amounts from a single donor to a campaign.

However, when it comes to congressional races, this has done very little in the name of change in getting the dependence on big donors to shift. In city level elections, it is a different picture. Some of the public financing programs have been successful in diversifying the donor base of local candidates and even the pool of candidates.


These programs let constituents have more of a say in who they want in power in their local government.

Let’s look at the public financing programs currently in use.

Small Donor Matching Programs

Matching fund programs use a specified ratio to match small donations with public funds. So let’s say a 5-1 ratio would give a candidate who raises $100 from small donors another $500 from the public fund. There would be a limit to specify the amount considered as a small donation and a certain number of donors required to qualify.

New York City has the highest matching fund ratio available for local election candidates. Candidates who abide by the strict audit and spending limits receive public matching funds at a $6-to-$1 rate for contributions up to $175 from New York residents.

The goal is to get candidates to appeal to a diverse donor base rather than a handful of wealthy donors and thus amplify the voices of regular constituents.

Grant-based Programs

A candidate opting in for a grant-based program receives full public funding to run their campaign. The system is also referred to as “clean elections” or “citizen-funded elections”. The city grants the qualifying candidate a lump-sum amount so that no further fundraising is required or allowed. This ensures every participating candidate gets equal resources with which to campaign.

To qualify, the candidate needs to raise a threshold amount in small donations (about $5) and demonstrate support from the community. This encourages candidates to build a stronger coalition of supporters.

Voucher Programs

Voucher programs incentivize both voters and candidates to engage with the other during the campaign phase. The program provides a voucher to every voter in the electorate which they can donate to their candidate of choice. These vouchers can be redeemed for campaign funds by the candidate.

Seattle voters receive four “Democracy Vouchers” worth $25 each which they can give to candidates running for City Council or City Attorney elections. This voucher program was passed in 2015 under a citizen-led initiative called “Honest Elections Seattle”. The program is aimed at encouraging a diverse pool of candidates and ensuring everyone in the electorate has an equal say.

Tax Credits/ Refunds

These programs allow a partial or full refund of small political donations made during the same year to voters who file tax returns. These contributions could be made to candidates, political parties or PACs. Some programs refund the donor’s money immediately instead of keeping them hanging till tax season.

This system has a couple of benefits. It makes political donations viable for voters who are not financially able to donate otherwise. Plus it opens up a bigger pool of donors to the candidates as well. So city candidates get the incentive to join the public financing program even if it comes with a few qualifying standards and regulations.

These programs to get small donors into the political process has proved successful in many cities and state elections. It gets big money out of the system and lets first time or independent candidates gain backing from the individual voters themselves.


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