Urban Politics #330: Public Financing of Election Campaigns in Seattle


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PUBLIC FINANCING OF ELECTION CAMPAIGNS IN SEATTLE

I believe that Seattle residents should have the opportunity to vote on whether our local elections should receive public financing.

Councilmembers are beginning efforts to explore a public financing system for Seattle. If this effort moves forward, the Council will place this decision on either the primary or general election ballot in 2013.

BACKGROUND, 1979-2009

Seattle had partial public financing of election campaigns in 1979 and 1981, and from 1987-1991. In 1992, state Initiative 134 passed, prohibiting public financing. In 2008 the State legislature passed a law allowing local jurisdictions to establish programs to publicly finance campaigns, if approved by a public vote, and the funding is derived from local sources only.

The City Council responded by passing Resolution 31061, which set up a Campaign Public Financing Advisory Committee that recommended publicly financing Seattle election campaigns; they recommended that the City Council place a measure on the November 2009 ballot for a public financing program, to go into effect for the 2011 election, with an estimated annual cost between $2.3 and $3.2 million. However the Great Recession began and City revenues plummeted, so the Council held off the vote indefinitely.

2013 UPDATE

With the local and national economies improving and added attention being drawn to the need for election reform highlighted by the Citizens United decision, citizens have requested the Council to revisit this issue. Other major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami already have public financing of municipal elections.

Last October I talked with Council President Clark and suggested that it may be time to revisit this issue, particularly since she had been a lead supporter in the past. We then kicked off a discussion of the public financing of elections in Seattle with a statement in support of exploring public financing of election campaigns in Seattle.

In December, we were joined by Councilmembers O’Brien and Rasmussen in sending a letter to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission asking them to recommend a public financing model that meets the goals of increasing electoral competitiveness, reducing financial barriers to entry for candidates, and increasing the role and emphasis of small donors in the electoral process. Recommendations were requested by March 1, for consideration of a potential ballot measure in either the primary or general election in the fall of 2013.

As part of the request, we asked that they review the 2008 report of the Campaign Finance Advisory Committee; examine new case law and changes to existing programs in other cities since 2008; explore new research on the effectiveness of public financing in meeting the goals; review local election data since 2008, and also consider potential budget implications.

SEATTLE CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS, 2001-2011

The case for or against public spending on helping finance local elections comes down to weighing its cost versus its benefit. While the cost is easier to measure than the benefit, there is an underlying sense that legislative bodies like a local council can most wisely spend the public’s money when they take into account the broadest range of concerns, rather than relying on a small cluster of interests.

There clearly has been a trend in Seattle of the growing concentration of more campaign money being collected from fewer donors. The 2011 Seattle Ethics and Elections report notes that from 2001 to 2011, the average donation in City Council races rose from $115 to $223. During the same period, the percentage of contributions under $100 decreased from 63% to 32% of total contributions.

THE BIG PICTURE

Democracies are based on a one-person one-vote principle; each person has the same influence in deciding who represents our public’s needs. But candidates, while attentive to soliciting individual voters, spend a good deal of their time soliciting donations. It is more time-efficient to collect one $700 donation (Seattle’s contribution limit per person) than say thirty-five $20 dollar donations. That means a candidate is spending an inordinate amount of time talking to a small constellation of voters, defined primarily by their ability or willingness to make large contributions.

The effect of that trend is difficult to measure, but it calls into question who elected officials are taking into consideration once they get into office. Who are they more likely to be talking to about issues and asking for donations? Generally less than 2% of those voting in any Council race make a contribution of any size; there is already a built in bias. It is only magnified when you consider that a clear majority of individual donations are collected in any local race from less than 20% of those making contributions. In the 2009 City Council elections, for example, only 8% of contributions were for $600 or more, but this totaled 52% of all money raised by candidates.

In pursuit of electing a City Council government that better reflects the priorities of a one-person one-vote democracy, some public funding of campaigns would increase the role and emphasis of small donors in the electoral process and by extension also broaden the public’s influence on the Council’s decision making. The public should have an opportunity to make that decision on this fall’s ballot.

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