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Bill Seeks to Tackle Big Money in Ore. Politics

The Small Donor Elections bill has been introduced for Oregon's legislative session, which begins Feb. 5. (Sean Fornelli/Flickr)
The Small Donor Elections bill has been introduced for Oregon's legislative session, which begins Feb. 5. (Sean Fornelli/Flickr)
January 26, 2018

SALEM, Ore. – Lawmakers will introduce a bill next month that aims to empower small donors in Oregon elections.

Under House Bill 4076, known as the Small Donor Elections bill, state legislative candidates would agree only to accept donations of $250 or less. In exchange, the donations would be matched 6-to-1 through limited public funds.

That means a $10 donation would be worth $70.

Kate Titus, executive director of the government accountability group Common Cause of Oregon, says candidates could shift their focus away from big political donors with this bill. But she notes cost is a hurdle.

"The cost, I think, has kept us from putting this reform in place in more places,” says Titus. “But really it's a bargain to use small amounts of public funds strategically in this way, so that we can own the election system ourselves and not let it be bought and paid for by special interests."

Cities around the country have adopted small donor public-financing systems for elections, including Portland in 2016. In Oregon, the bill has gained support from groups that represent people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community, among others.

Jenny Lee, advocacy director for the Coalition of Communities of Color says Oregon is becoming more diverse, yet that isn't reflected in the composition of the Legislature. She says candidates of color often struggle from their lack of connections with wealthy donors, and thinks this bill is a way for candidates to bridge the wealth gap.

"This is a way to mitigate the impact of income inequality and racial inequities in our economic system, in our democracy,” she says. “Someone's voice should not receive less attention simply because they don't benefit from this wealth."

Titus says an astronomical amount of money has flowed into recent elections, in large part because of the Citizen's United decision.

The trend also comes as economic inequality grows across the country. Titus says this bill attempts to put electoral power back into the hands of ordinary citizens.

"You can have great economic inequality or you can have democracy, but you can't have both," says Titus, quoting former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis on the need to rein in inequality.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR