Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

There’s nothing quite like an oversight hearing to give a government agency a kick in the ass.

It’s been more than a year since the D.C. Council unanimously passed the “Fair Elections Act of 2017,” which establishes a publicly funded election program in the District.

But the start of the 2020 election cycle is right around the corner, and the Office of Campaign Finance, which is in charge of overseeing public elections, doesn’t have the program up and running.

During a committee oversight hearing last week, OCF director Cecily Collier- Montgomery revealed that the office has not procured the technology for the e-filing system that tracks and verifies candidates’ campaign contributions. She said the office has not filled six of the vacant positions related to the Fair Elections Act, and expressed confusion over how much money is actually available to candidates in the budget for this fiscal year.

“This isn’t going to work on a hope and a prayer,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the committee with oversight of OCF, said during the hearing. “I’m trying to keep it in check here, but I am pretty frustrated that we’re sitting here five months into the fiscal year and this is where we are, and an election cycle is already upon us.”

Under the law, candidates for local office need a certain number of small-dollar donations in order to receive public dollars to subsidize their campaigns. To qualify, a candidate for mayor, for example, must take in at least $40,000 from at least 1,000 small-dollar donors who live in the District. Individual contributions are limited to $200. Ward Council candidates need at least 150 individual contributions totaling $5,000, with a $50 contribution limit.

Candidates for mayor, attorney general, all Council seats, and the State Board of Education are eligible for the public campaign program.

Candidates in the program get a base grant ($160,000 for mayor and $40,000 for Council) as well as public funds to match their small-dollar donations. Similar programs exist in Montgomery County and New York City.

The law is one piece of the Council’s campaign finance reform efforts aimed at curbing the influence of deep-pocketed donors in local races. Lawmakers also passed a bill in December 2018 that bans donations from corporations and their executives that have or are seeking contracts with the District government worth $250,000 or more.

The public elections law took effect after the November 2018 election and was fully funded by the Council to the tune of $2.8 million this fiscal year.

During the oversight hearing last week, Collier-Montgomery said the office needed about $400,000 more for the e-filing system that will support the public elections program. OCF had originally estimated that cost to be about $62,000, then upped it to $90,000 last year.

Collier-Montgomery said her office reviewed similar public elections systems in October 2018 and realized what functions the system needed to be capable of performing.

She said OCF intends to pay for the increase with funds from lapsed salary for the positions in the public elections program that they have not yet filled—another frustration of Allen’s. 

As of last week, there were six vacant positions in OCF’s fair elections division, though Collier-Montgomery said the office had scheduled interviews with several candidates for the end of February and early March.

Collier-Montgomery said OCF could not advertise the positions until the funding became available, which happened in October 2018.

Even with the funds identified, OCF hasn’t procured a new e-filing system yet, Collier-Montgomery said, which is the backbone to the whole program. In the meantime, they will pay to develop a second, temporary system that she “hopes” will be up and running by July 31, the next filing deadline for the 2020 election cycle.

“Do you have confidence in this secondary site system, that if someone reaches that qualification threshold, that they’ll be able to draw down the public matching dollars … and you’ve got the data in your secondary system to accurately capture that?” Allen asked.

Collier-Montgomery said she is confident that the shoe-string system could support the program. The main difference, according to OCF spokesperson Wesley Williams, is the system’s ability to automatically evaluate whether a candidate’s contributions qualify for matching public funds. That will have to be done manually, he says. Collier-Montgomery was less confident in her answer to whether the temporary system would be ready in time.

“Yes, that’s our hope,” Collier-Montgomery said. “But remember, at this point we have not even started the requisition process.”

“We very intentionally passed the legislation when we did, funded it the way we did to try to set up the lead time to not find ourselves in this situation,” Allen said. “I think this is an ambitious timeline to be ready, but I don’t think you have any other choice.”

A bizarre discrepancy also came to light during the oversight hearing. Collier-Montgomery and the other OCF staff who testified were under the impression that there was only about $550,000 in the budget for public elections this fiscal year. In fact, the Council dedicated a total of $2.8 million.

Allen says he doesn’t know how the discrepancy happened but he is confident it will be worked out. “The budget is the budget. It just seems like it’s not lined up in the right places,” he tells LL. “I’m not nearly as panicked about that, as I am about the other pieces where I feel like a stronger sense of urgency is needed to get program up and running.”

Finally, there’s the issue of the regulations. Although the public elections program is technically active, and candidates could sign up now, the regulations that spell out how to comply are not finalized. Only a proposed version is published in the DC register.

Michael Bennett, who chairs the DC Board of Elections and testified alongside Collier-Montgomery, promised to accelerate the timeline to finalizing the regulations. Collier-Montgomery rescheduled a meeting with the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition, a group of organizations that recommended changes to the proposed regulations, from mid-March to late February to discuss the group’s ideas. The Board of Elections will vote on the revisions at its next meeting in the first week of March.

“Right now I think we’re still in at a place where we can get this program running on time,” says Ericka Taylor, the organizing director with DC Working Families, which is part of the Fair Elections Coalition. “It looks like OCF understands this is the time to really go hard. We would like them to be further along, and we’d like to see them go into high gear right now.”

During the hearing, Allen suggested calling OCF back for a roundtable at the end of March to check on their progress. Bennett and Collier-Montgomery agreed that’s a good idea.

“The legislation has been around for a minute, but this is a new program,” Bennett says in a separate interview. “It’s a major impact to go from no public funding to public funding in a jurisdiction with all new rules and regulations. So it requires a lot of care and attention.”