The City Council’s Rules Committee voted 6-1 Monday night to advance a public financing scheme for mayoral elections to the full City Council.

The campaign finance proposal, developed by Reform for Illinois and sponsored by Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th), moved forward on a 6-1 vote despite concerns raised by Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) that it needed revisions first.

A motion to table it until a Rules Committee meeting at a to-be-determined date in September failed on a 3-4 vote in part because of concerns that if the proposal, first discussed last winter, did not advance now it might create difficulty including funding for it in the 2024 city budget.

To participate in the program, a candidate would have to receive at least 100 initial qualifying contributions of between $5 and $50.

The candidate would also have to limit all contributions accepted during the campaign to no more than $150 per person or other entity.

Having done that, the candidate would get a match of $9 from the city for every $1 in contributions the candidate receives.

An Evanston Now analysis of the impact of the taxpayer funding proposal suggests that in a 2025 re-run of the last mayoral race the effect of the ordinance would be to slightly reduce the funds available to the 2021 winner, Daniel Biss, while dramatically increasing funds available to the two losing candidates, Lori Keenan and Sebastian Nalls.

The proposed ordinance calls for allocating roughly $100,000 per year — given the current size of the city budget — to the mayoral campaign subsidy program, plus $50,000 per election cycle to the city clerk’s office to run the program.

Candidates who wanted to skip the public financing option would be free to raise private contributions in excess of the program limits.

Efforts by Ald. Devon Reid (8th) to modify the proposal were unsuccessful.

He suggested letting only contributions from lower-income residents qualify for the matching funds, but Reform for Illinois representatives at the meeting said that would almost certainly be unconstitutional and his proposal failed for lack of a second.

He then proposed expanding the program to provide matching funds for aldermanic candidates in the 2nd and 5th wards and his 8th ward — the lowest income wards in the city.

But that proposal as well failed for lack of a second.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Is this program’s cost to taxpayers hard-capped at $100k for the mayoral election and $50k for the clerk election? Or is that just what is budgeted, w/o any strict upside limit?

    I think it’s critical to have a hard cap on this, as w/o it, an enterprising – or corrupt – candidate could use the 9:1 taxpayer:donor ratio to rack up a huge, taxpayer-funded war chest. For example, they might hire a fundraiser on a simple budget: Raise just $3,000 for me (to be matched by $27,000 in matching city funds), and I’ll hire you as a staff fundraiser and pay you half of the $30k our campaign fund now holds.

    I still can’t believe that 9:1 ratio. Why this program doesn’t use a reasonable ratio (1:1 dollar-for-dollar matches?) is beyond me.

    1. Hi Dave,

      The proposed ordinance would cap the annual funding allocation at a percentage of the total city budget. So, assuming the ordinance is adopted, and funding is included starting with the 2024 city budget, the election year cap would be around $200K in 2025 and twice that in 2029.

      Even with the cap, the program certainly creates an incentive to spend more money on “retail” or small-dollar fundraising, rather than just tapping a smaller network of friends and acquaintances who have relatively high net worth.

      It might also lead those high net worth folk to make more “independent” expenditures, not coordinated with the candidate, which are beyond the reach of the ordinance.

      Given Ald. Reid’s comments Monday, I think it is fair to assume that if the plan takes effect for the 2025 mayoral election, there will be a push to expand it to also cover aldermanic races and the campaign for clerk by 2029, presumably with additional funding.

      — Bill

  2. The big winner in all this will be print shops and mailing houses as candidates spend more money on the junk that fills our mailboxes and door stoops and eventually our recycling bins every election cycle.

  3. Well then, I guess the peoople of Evanston will simply have to stop making any contributions whatever to mayoral campaigns. No contributions = no matching funds. Because I, for one, don’t want my taxdollars supporting candidates that I do not personally support.

  4. If Evanston really wanted fair elections, rather than have the City fund them, all candidates should be limited not to exceed a certain dollar amount spent on their campaigns. The past two mayors (and some of the council members) have outspent their challengers by a huge margins. Does this provide Evanston with the best qualified candidate, or just the one who’s able to spend the most on their campaign, thus essentially buying a seat? And while this may sound like sour grapes, please know that no one is happier than I am not to be Evanston’s mayor right now, but for future candidates to have a level playing field, which I think is the intent, I sincerely doubt this will make a difference unless it’s a mandatory cap of $150 per donation/donor. Just my two cents (pun intended).

    1. Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings the government can’t limit the amount of money a candidate can spend on his or her own campaign.
      Under state law the funds other people can contribute to a campaign are limited– but quite substantial.
      A summary can be found here.
      The taxpayer funding proposal in Evanston is attempting to persuade candidate to voluntarily limit the funds they raise by dangling the large matching amounts from taxpayers as an incentive.
      — Bill

  5. There’s got to be a law that states you can’t use taxpayer money to fund an election?

    This makes no sense to me that we fund elections on people we don’t vote for.

    Where’s the freedom? Where’s the choice?

    1. Hi Frank,
      A sizable number of other communities have various version of public funding schemes for elections. So it would appear that it is possible to structure them so as to be legal.
      (And, of course, any of us may end up seeing our tax dollars fund a lot of programs that they don’t like. Majority rule, representative democracy, and all that.)
      — Bill

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