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Big Money Plays Big Role in Baltimore City Elections

New Report Analyzes Fundraising Data from the 2020 Mayoral Elections
For Immediate Release

BALTIMORE - Large political contributions played an outsized role in Baltimore City’s 2020 mayoral elections, according to a new report released today by the Maryland PIRG Foundation. The report found that the vast majority of political fundraising originated from people and entities not eligible to vote in Baltimore elections. 

On average, competitive candidates spent over $1 million each over the course of the election.

“The high cost to run for Mayor has driven candidates to spend an increasing amount of time fundraising from wealthy donors and special interests instead of being able to focus on their constituents,” said Rishi Shah, an advocate for Maryland PIRG Foundation.

The report analyzed contribution and expenditure data for 18 mayoral candidates in Baltimore City in the 2020 election cycle. It found that contributions of $150 or more made up 96% of the money raised in the mayoral election, despite only representing just over one third of contributions made in the mayoral race. The average contribution made to a mayoral campaign was $844, which is well over the weekly per capita income of $601 in Baltimore City.

Further, more than 80% of the money contributed to Baltimore’s mayoral race came from entities that didn’t represent Baltimore residents, such as corporations, PACs, or out-of-city or out-of-state donors.

“Voters should be in the driver's seat of our elections, not wealthy and corporate donors,” Shah said. “The new campaign finance system will be better for voters, candidates, and Baltimore as a whole.”

In 2018, voters passed small donor public financing by a 3-to-1 margin. Councilman Kristerfer Burnett sponsored implementation legislation, which was passed by the City Council and signed into law by former Mayor Jack Young in 2020. Small donor financing will be in effect for the 2024 mayor, comptroller and city council elections.

“I would like to thank the staff at Maryland PIRG for their continued advocacy around the issue of campaign finance and the influence of money in politics,” Burnett said. “How electoral campaigns are financed matters and it’s my hope that the coming implementation of the Baltimore City Fair Election Fund, which was approved by voters in 2018, will reshape the political field in Baltimore City and allow for grassroots funded campaigns to have a better shot at winning elections.”

The report recommends that Baltimore City Mayor and City Council move to allocate funding to the Fair Elections Fund and establish the Fair Election Commission to oversee the program, as required by law. The program allows candidates to opt-in to receive matching public funds for small contributions from individuals. In exchange, they cannot accept large contributions or money from corporations. 

Applications to be part of the Fair Election Commission are currently open.

“As this report clearly shows, the donors to mayoral candidates are not reflective of the community. But by multiplying donations of $150 or less, the Fair Elections program will put small donors at the center of elections, ensuring that we all have equal opportunity to influence their outcome,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

In 2014, Montgomery County became the first county in Maryland to establish a small donor public campaign financing program. Since then, in addition to Baltimore City, Howard County, Washington D.C., Prince George’s County, and Baltimore County have begun implementing similar programs. Montgomery County used this system in their 2018 elections, which showed promising results.

“By properly funding and implementing the new Fair Elections program, we can build a stronger and more democratic elections system that represents all Baltimoreans--not just wealthy special interests,” Shah said.   

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Maryland PIRG Foundation is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.

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