Big Money in Oregon State Elections
The Need to Restore Balance to Democracy by Empowering Small Donors

Executive Summary

The dominating influence of large political donors shapes elections from beginning to end – from an individual’s decision to run for office, to a candidate’s ability to get his or her message out to the public, to the makeup of the people with whom a candidate spends time while running for and serving in office.

A review of campaign finance data from the 2016 Oregon state elections shows that just 723 large donors to electoral campaigns outgave all small donors by nearly 14 to 1 – overwhelming the voices of regular Oregonians in candidate and ballot measure races. In addition to drowning out regular voters, the dominance of big money may also affect who runs for office in the first place by deterring talented, committed, public-spirited people who don’t have access to wealthy donors.

To ensure that elected office is open to those without access to deep-pocketed donors, and to amplify the voices of small donors, Oregon should adopt the proven strategy of matching small contributions to political campaigns.

Large donors dominated contributions to 2016 Oregon candidate and ballot measure campaigns.

  • In 2016, just 723 large individual and business donors (defined as those giving $5,000 or more) collectively contributed $34.9 million to Oregon candidate and ballot measure campaigns.
  • In contrast, 31,112 small donors (defined as those giving $250 or less) collectively contributed $2.5 million, meaning large donors outspent small donors nearly 14 to 1. (See Figure ES-1.)
  • It would have taken almost 270,500 small donors to match the amount of money contributed by the 723 large donors who gave to Oregon’s 2016 electoral campaigns.
  • Even just the largest 25 donors to Oregon elections outgave all small donors by a ratio of 6.4 to 1.
  • A significant portion of large donor money came from out of state. Of total money given to campaigns by large donors, only 44 percent came from donors in Oregon; of campaign contributions made by small donors, almost 80 percent came from state residents.

Figure ES-1. Campaign Contributions by Donor Size/Type in Oregon 2016 State Elections*

*Large donors are those who contributed $5,000 or more to electoral campaigns, small donors those who gave $250 or less, and medium donors those who gave between those values.

Disparities between small and large donors exist in both candidate and ballot measure campaigns.

  • Large donors to candidate campaigns gave 3.7 times as much in total as small donors, while large donors to ballot measure campaigns outgave small donors by a ratio of 190 to 1. 
  • Over a third (35%) of funding for candidate campaigns came from just 424 large donors, while over half (52%) of ballot measure contributions came from just 349 large donors. (See Table ES-1.)

Table ES-1. Small and Large Donors to Candidate and Ballot Measure Campaigns

Donor Type Number of Donors Total Amount Donated Average Contribution Ratio of Large Donor to Small Donor Contributions
Small Donors to Candidate Campaigns 29,479 $2,423,547 $129 --
Large Donors to Candidate Campaigns 424 $8,964,159 $21,142 3.7
Other Donors to Candidate Campaigns 526 $10,069,782 $19,144 --
Small Donors to Ballot Measure Campaigns 1,633 $135,828 $134 --
Large Donors to Ballot Measure Campaigns 349 $25,895,324 $74,199 190.6
Other Donors to Ballot Measure Campaigns 78 $23,338,948 $299,217 --

The dominance of large contributions in campaigns makes access to big-money donors a key criterion for success and can discourage Oregonians with an interest in public service from competing for office. Potential and previous candidates for local, regional or state office shared their experiences with us:

  • Ozzie Gonzalez has considered running for multiple local offices, including most recently that of Metro Council President: “One of the first advisors I reached out to … immediately said, ‘The first thing you need to do is start a PAC. You’ve got to get a good fundraising agency.’ It shifted my perspective so quickly. … When I realized you have to set up a PAC, a fundraising mechanism, find a fundraising partner, and you’ve got to quit your job to focus on reaching out to the key donors that are going to get your political campaign off the ground … it dissuaded me altogether.”
  • Moses Ross ran for a seat on the Portland Community College Board of Directors: “The only way you’re going to be able to make a strong impact is through mass communication. And that meant phones, mail, canvassing. And I didn’t have the money for the ground game. That was the challenge.”
  • Jamila Singleton ran for a seat on the Portland Board of Public Education: “The fundraising part was really challenging. … I probably spent only 5 percent of my time canvassing, compared to 80 percent of my time fundraising.”

Oregon can restore balance to its elections by adopting a policy proven to amplify the voice of small donors in elections – matching small contributions with public funds. The country’s largest city – New York – has seen encouraging results from such a program, which matches small contributions from city residents up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio. During the 2013 general election, the winners of 54 out of the 59 elected positions in New York City participated in the city’s small donor matching program. As a result of the program, funds raised from small donors accounted for over 60 percent of all campaign contributions, and made donors to city elections more reflective of residents of New York City.

Had Oregon had a small donor matching program like that of New York City’s in place for the 2016 elections, with a 6-to-1 match on contributions from in-state donors of $250 per candidate or less, the dominance of large donors would have been significantly curtailed. Instead of large donors outgiving small donors by a ratio of 3.7 to 1, funding from small donors and small donor-related matching funds would have exceeded contributions from large donors by $4.1 million. (See Figure ES-2.)

Figure ES-2. Donations to 2016 Candidate Campaigns under Small Donor Matching Program

Oregon’s elections are no exception to the influence big donors have over U.S. political elections. Small donor programs provide campaign finance reform models that enhance the voice of all voters, regardless of the size of their wallets.