'Honest Elections': Does all this add up?

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A voter drops off a ballot in Ballard.

Looking at the latest campaign finance reform effort to hit the November ballot, Initiative 122 – Honest Elections Seattle, I have to wonder if there is some sort of competition for the Most Dubious Idea in Seattle that I was unaware of. The Orwellian-named Honest Elections Initiative is a strong contender.

This latest “progressive” reform proposal is the second recent effort to force property owners to fund local political campaigns whether they want to or not. The timing of the last effort, in 2013, coincided with what proved to be the wildly popular Charter Amendment 19 to elect Seattle city council members by district (which carried 66 percent of the vote). In contrast, the 2013 measure for public financing of campaigns, which would have set up a system where candidates could voluntarily limit their fund raising in return for property owners ponying up to $210,000 per candidate, failed narrowly, receiving 49.6 percent of the vote.

Some of us suspected that the 2013 campaign finance effort was meant, at least in part, to offer an option to the district elections system, which many progressive groups opposed as putting neighborhood concerns ahead of what they regard as bigger picture citywide concerns. If so, it was a failure on that front, too.

Backers of the new Initiative 122 are apparently still unhappy with the idea of letting you decide whether or not you want to contribute to a political campaign.

So, what would I-122 do? The ballot statement:

“If enacted, the measure would limit election campaign contributions from entities receiving City contracts totaling $250,000 or more, or from persons spending $5,000 or more for lobbying; require 24-hour reporting of electronic contributions; require paid signature gatherer identification; limit lobbying by former City officials; create a voluntary program for public campaign financing through $100 vouchers issued to registered voters funded by ten years of additional property taxes, with $3,000,000 (approximately $0.0194/$1000 assessed value) collected in 2016.” (Italics added.)

The initiative would provide $100 “democracy vouchers” to all registered voters to give to the candidate of their choice, either in $25 increments or the whole shebang to one candidate.

That sounds straightforward enough. But it gets a little confusing when you look deeper. While the initiative statement sounds like it would give all registered voters these vouchers, only the first $3 million in contributions will actually matter.

In fact, there will be a whole lot of disappointed people with useless vouchers. Just take a look at the numbers: Currently there are 414,340 registered voters in Seattle. Of those, 128,584 have voted in the August primary (as of Wednesday evening's tabulations). So if all registered voters receive $100 in vouchers that comes to $41 million. Even if only the primary voters wanted to give out vouchers, the cost could be $12.8 million. Of course, only candidates who qualify and choose to participate would be eligible for contributions, but do we really know what that number will be or how effective they will be at bundling vouchers? There’s a big gulf between $3 million and $12 million, or $41 million.

Another way to look at the numbers:

The $3 million represents 30,000 people out of 414,000 registered voters. This means that only 7.25 percent of the people who receive the vouchers will be able to contribute to a candidate. This is harder than getting an Ichiro bobblehead when the Mariners were good! And yet 100 percent of property owners (and renters, indirectly) will pay for 7 percent participation. Do you think there might be pressure to raise the levy amount down the road?

Let’s take a guess at what will happen with these taxpayer funds: Those organizations with large membership lists would dominate the first-in-the-door money. The rest of the public? Well, they will have useless vouchers that cannot be redeemed by any campaign. But maybe they could take solace that they can still contribute their own money to any candidate of their choice — just as they always have.

Would the new money help get more people to vote? Would it empower some deserving candidates who might have a harder time without public financing? Who knows?

A new job title would certainly be born: the democracy voucher collector. Remember how important it will be to be the first $3 million in of the $41 million? Organizations will need to hire experts at collecting these vouchers — the voucher collector is born. This earnest, or maybe not so earnest, entrepreneur would help direct your taxpayer-funded voucher to the right place — a real public service.

Supporters will claim that the system cannot be corrupted because it is illegal to sell your voucher, and not worth risking the steep fines. As a public safety adviser to former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, I recognize this could turn out to be naïve. If there are ways to game this system, with this much money at stake, somebody will figure it out. The incentives for political and financial funny business will be irresistible.

But what do we even get with this system? Probably even more Independent Expenditure campaigns (IE) than we already have. As candidates opt into the voucher system and pledge to limit the individual contributions they accept, those private contributions will go to consultants running IEs. And there is nothing in this initiative that can limit that.

One of the initiative’s biggest backers, the Sightline Institute, is hoping the voucher system will create more incentives for candidates to engage with voters and get more voters to contribute to candidates. But the Sightline analysis ignores a basic fact. Put plainly: The number one reason people don’t contribute to political campaigns is because they don’t want to.

And if you want more candidates running, and more door-to-door voter contact, that is happening now, even without taxpayers having to pony up $41 million, I mean $3 million per election. To that point: If he ballot language says $41 million while the levy is $3 million, how is this an Honest Election Initiative?

Why is this even needed?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.