Seattle just changed the way we pay for local political campaigns

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Seattle voters just approved a first-of-its kind experiment in campaign finance reform that will overhaul how candidates for local office raise money. Initiative 122, a.k.a. the Honest Elections Initiative, is a hyper-local attempt at a workaround of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has vastly expanded the impact of money on U.S. politics.

The idea, which originated with academics at Yale and Harvard, has attracted national media attention: The Huffington Post, CNN, New York Magazine and Al Jazeera all included the initiative in their lists of issues to watch on election day. Now, proponents from Seattle to New Haven are hoping it could start a movement that busts down the doors of the Supreme Court.

"This is a dramatic step in putting democracy back in America,” says Yale constitutional law scholar Bruce Ackerman.

What it does

Starting in 2017, Seattle voters will receive four $25 "democracy vouchers" apiece to give to the candidate or candidates of their choice. The idea is to force candidates to solicit more donations from a wide range of people, rather than leaning on the support of a handful of wealthy friends, says Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute and one of the architects of the policy. It could also provide average citizens a path to public office.

The voucher system is untested, however. Tallahassee, Florida, has a $25 tax rebate for campaign donors. In Minneapolis, donors can receive tax credits. But Seattle will be the first city in the U.S. to give public money to citizens to encourage civic participation in campaign financing. To fund the new system, voters approved a $30 million, 10-year property tax levy — an additional $9 a year to the average homeowner. Durning called the amount “budget dust.”

The new system also reduces the maximum individual donations from $700 per person per candidate to $500; restricts the ability of lobbyists and contractors to donate; and caps campaign spending to $800,000 for mayoral candidates, $300,000 for citywide council candidates, and $150,000 for district council and city attorney candidates.

What it doesn’t do

Because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other court rulings that essentially equate money with speech, Durning and his allies could not ban special interest groups from donating to local campaigns. Honest Elections also cannot mandate campaign-spending limits.

Instead, the new system creates incentives for candidates to voluntarily comply with the new rules. In order to accept the new vouchers, candidates must agree to the new fundraising restrictions. “In a city like Seattle, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to participate,” says City Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “If you don’t, what does that say about your campaign?”

Donors, on the other hand, will still be allowed to give money in addition to their vouchers. If Citizens United says money is speech, Seattle’s wealthy will still be able to maintain the louder voice. (And if this year's election is any indication, they will do just that: The city saw record spending by "independent expenditures," -- the local version of a political action committee.)

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 say. "I'm guessing candidates who opt in will raise 85 to 90 percent from the vouchers," says Durning.

And if O’Brien is correct in his hunch that voters will pressure candidates into taking vouchers, achieving the cap solely through vouchers could give candidates bragging rights in this über progressive city.

Where it came from

This was not the first time Seattle voters considered a public campaign finance proposal. In 2013, city Proposition 1, a measure that would have matched every private donation under $50 with six public dollars, lost by just over 1,000 votes. Estevan Munoz-Howard, a chair with Fair Elections Seattle, who played a big role in that campaign, said, “We would have won that if we’d even sent out one mailer.”

But rather than simply try again, Durning drew on the writing of Yale's Ackerman, who first pitched the voucher idea nearly 20 years prior. “The fundamental weakness of [matching funds],” says Ackerman over the phone, “is it doesn’t take economic reality seriously.” The poor aren’t making donations to begin with, he says, so matching them is useless.

“The Seattle idea puts a genuine idea on the table for ordinary citizens to participate in politics,” says Ackerman. “If you’re making $30,000, you still have your $100 [in vouchers] and candidates are interested in talking to you."

Getting the initiative passed took money, however. Several East Coast funders, including Every Voice in Washington D.C. and Sean Eldridge, a former New York candidate for Congress and husband to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, dumped nearly $600,000 into the initiative’s campaign — a glaring irony opponents are quick to point out.

“It is part of a really long game around changing Citizens United,” says Honest Elections Campaign Manager Heather Weiner. “For lack of a better analogy, I’d compare it to marriage equality. It was lower level grassroots movements and eventually it caught a wave.”

“It isn’t really a surprise that there were so many people across the country that are interested in this,” says Lizzy Reinholt, Communications Director for Mainers for Accountable Elections. Maine passed a referendum Tuesday night to restore the state’s debunked public financing program. “Both of them (the Seattle and Maine measures) serve as the beginning of an overall national movement.”

The potential stumbling blocks

Principal opposition to the Seattle experiment is that it will drive more money into independent expenditures, which, as mentioned before, are well protected by Citizens United. Some contend that candidates who declare early — like, say, incumbents — will easily sweep up the vouchers before their opponents even have a shot. Others predict that a black market will quickly spring up around vouchers.

Both Weiner and Ackerman acknowledge that Honest Elections isn’t perfect. “I am not saying I-122 is the best system for every city,” says Weiner. “People [in Seattle] are already used to mailing in their ballots and participating in politics online and through the mail. We’re a relatively small city — not like Chicago or New York. That means that candidates and voters can interact frequently and with meaning and we want to encourage that.”

“If you’re looking for perfection,” says Ackerman, “you’re going to have to hold your breath for quite a while.” But for his money, any reform effort that would stand up before the Supreme Court is worth a second look. “We’re looking for promising ideas that can survive a Supreme Court,” he says. “And this one can.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.