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Campaign finance: Seattle could set new standard

An organization called Honest Elections Seattle filed 32,000 signatures Monday to run an initiative that they hope could blaze new trails nationally while dramatically overhauling how local candidates for mayor, city attorney and city council raise money.

The initiative, which was filed as I-122, contains an unprecedented idea for public financing of political campaigns. If passed, Seattle voters would receive four $25 vouchers apiece to give to the candidate or candidates of their choice. Borne out of the thinking of Yale and Harvard academics, the idea, according to Honest Elections’ policy architect Alan Durning, is to force candidates to solicit more donations from a wider range of people rather than leaning on the support of their wealthy friends.

Assuming the city clerk validates some 20,630 of the signatures, Seattle voters will decide on the initiative in November. Durning said that the campaigners have complete confidence that enough will qualify to put the measure before voters.

Honest Elections Executive Committee member Estevan Munoz-Howard believes the initiative would provide average citizens a path to winning election to office. “You ought to compete in the power of ideas,” he said, “not money.”

The voucher system is untested. Tallahassee, Florida has a $25 tax rebate for donors and in Minneapolis, donors can receive tax credits. But I-122 would set up the only system in the U.S. to give public money to citizens to encourage civic participation in campaign financing.

I-122 would also reduce the maximum individual donations from $700 per person per candidate to $500, restrict the ability of lobbyists and contractors to donate, and, among other things, cap campaign spending. The spending limits would be $800,000 for mayor, $300,000 for citywide council candidates and $150,000 for district council and city attorney candidates.

The Honest Elections campaign wheeled in 32,000 signatures for its initiative.
The Honest Elections campaign wheeled in 32,000 signatures for its initiative.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a few other court rulings regarding campaign contributions that essentially equated money with speech, Durning and Co. could not seek to ban special interest groups from donating. They also cannot mandate campaign-spending limits. Therefore, under the proposed system, candidates would make voluntary decisions about whether they would comply with the I-122 rules.

But in order to benefit from the voucher program, candidates must agree to the restrictions of I-122. For some, the political capital of running under the I-122 system could be enough motivation. “In a city like Seattle,” said City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, “there’s going to be a lot of pressure to participate. If you don’t, what does that say about your campaign?”

The idea and some of the motivation for this initiative came from the failure of another public campaign finance proposal. In 2013, city Proposition 1, a measure that would have matched every private donation under $50 by a factor of six public dollars, lost by just over 1,000 votes. Munoz-Howard, who played a big role in that campaign, said, “We would have won that if we’d even sent out one mailer.”

When he, Sightline Institute Executive Director Durning and other members of the Honest Elections coalition revisited the idea last year, they decided to drop the matching funds in favor of exploring the voucher system. According to Durning, the vouchers are a chance to set a national precedent. Not to mention, he said, “They actually poll better than the matching fund.”

Seattle elections, to be sure, don’t exactly mirror the national picture of money in politics. There aren’t any Super PACs or Koch brothers here. Councilmember O’Brien said the current contribution limit of $700 is relatively strict, much tighter than for many political offices.

Furthermore, donors would still be allowed to give money in addition to their vouchers. If Citizens United says money is speech, Seattle’s wealthy would still be able to maintain the louder voice.

That said, a candidate for one of the City Council’s new district representation positions could reach his or her $150,000 cap by wooing all four $25 vouchers from just 1,500 people. While not easy, it’s doable, backers said. “I’m guessing candidates who opt in will raise 85 to 90 percent from the vouchers,” said Durning. And if O’Brien is correct in his hunch that voters would pressure candidates into taking vouchers, achieving the cap through vouchers could theoretically be a feather in the hat of a hopeful elected official.

The initiative will ask voters to approve a $30 million, 10-year property tax levy — an additional $8 a year to the average homeowner. Durning called the amount “budget dust.”

Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center was among the opponents to Proposition 1 in 2013. And while he finds the voucher idea “intriguing,” he remains adamantly opposed to public money in campaigns, even if it is a tiny fraction of overall city spending. “Our view is the government should stay out of the process, except for running a fair and neutral election,” he said. “Whether it’s a voucher system or the matching fund, it’s not right to violate someone’s conscience by collecting their money and giving it to someone they might oppose.”

In short? “Keep your hands of our elections.”

The initiative, as new as it is, has mostly inspired questions. “The real effort,” said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, “is to make sure it doesn’t cost too much just to implement.”

Now that the signatures have been submitted, the campaign begins. “It’s about spreading the word now,” said Munoz-Howard.

Whether people are for, against or unsure about the measure, the  unique campaign financing proposal seems likely to attract significant attention in the city and beyond.

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