Urban Politics #339: Should Seattle return to public financing of elections?


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average contributionShould Seattle return to public financing of elections?

Seattle was the first major city to enact public financing in 1979. State law prohibited it in 1992, but allowed it again in 2008, with a public vote and local funding.

On June 24 the City Council is scheduled to vote on a ballot measure to restore public financing of City Council elections, based on a proposal from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. Participation would be voluntary. Any candidate who attains 600 contributions of at least $10 would qualify. Once qualified, contributions up to $50 would be matched 6-1, as in New York City, to a maximum of $210,000 in public funds. Candidates would agree to a $245,000 spending cap. It would be funded by a $2 million annual levy, unlike the previous system, which was funded by the general fund, to ensure other city services aren’t affected. A motion I introduced failed. It would have reduced the level of public match to $180,000, and the levy would have gone down to $1.5 million.

Here’s why I support bringing back public financing.

Most City Council races are not competitive. This leads to a second point: Who is involved in Seattle elections, as donors and candidates?

Over the last ten years, the number of contributions to Council races under $100 has dropped 50%, and the size of the average contribution has nearly doubled. The answer is clear: smaller donors play a reduced role, meaning larger donors play a larger role.

As for candidates, in our current system, to get elected—or to be a viable candidate—you need two things:

  1. support from a broad number people, and
  2. broad support from enough people with a lot of money.

This is where money narrows our political culture, and has an impact on what issues rise to the fore in Seattle politics—in how the civic agenda is set, and how the Council spends its time. Potential candidates who may be involved in their community, but lack the support of large donors, have a very tough time running a viable campaign, so they often don’t run.

Public financing comes down to a simple idea: should we broaden who can run for city council, and have a realistic chance of winning? Should we expand the importance of small donors, and create an option where they are important?

The issue is systemic. Unless we address the system, we should expect current trends to continue.

There’s a real public benefit to competitive races with credible challengers. They raise issues that might not otherwise be raised, and help set the civic agenda. Incumbents have to take notice of these issues.

How candidates interact with potential donors is also systemic.

In our current system, candidates must spend a lot of time not just dialing for dollars, but dialing for big dollars.  If you need a lot of money to win—and the average amount spent by a winning candidate in the last four election cycles is $243,000—it’s much more time-efficient to solicit $700 maximum donations.  That’s how our current system is set up. Everyone talks about not wanting money in politics, but in our current system, candidates have little choice. I know this well from experience, even though my campaigns have been relatively low-cost compared to most other candidates who have been elected.

$700 donors tend to have what I call a constellation of similar interests. When the system incentivizes candidates to call $700 donors, their issues are the ones you’ll hear about, and that limits the scope of issues the Council is involved with.

By changing the system, candidates will have an option to take another path, to focus on smaller donors. That will influence what issues rise to the fore, because of who they spend their time interacting with.

If candidates need to reach out—and $10 donations matter—the incentives for candidates to significantly broaden the level of citizen involvement will be huge. That would change Seattle politics—for the better.

Should the district elections initiative make the ballot and pass, with public financing, funding would already be in place for district elections. The Council would then need to propose an amendment, as required by state law, to send to voters next year with a district-specific proposal; this could result in reduced levy.

Below is the press conference where I spoke about this.

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