Revisiting public financing for local elections


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The voters of Seattle recently approved a charter amendment to change the way we elect candidates to City Council. Starting in 2015, Seattle will elect a majority of City Council members by district—seven will be elected by district and two will remain at-large. In my view, the strongest reasons to support the move to districts are to strengthen our local democracy by reducing barriers to running for office, allowing for more competitive races and encouraging candidates to run on more community-level issues.

Running for office requires resources to get a candidate’s message out, which in today’s system means candidates spend a lot of time fundraising instead of time meeting people in their communities and engaging over the best ideas for leading Seattle. In a district based system, candidates will need less money than under the citywide system—which was part of the appeal of moving to a district based system—but the role of money will still be significant in terms of a candidate’s ability to reach voters, and just as importantly, their perceived viability. As Alan Durning at Sightline writes in his excellent article, Dialing for Dollars (a must read):

This money race is the key to selling yourself to voters, because advertising is much of campaigning now, and advertising is expensive. The money race is also how the news media handicap the contest. Your fundraising haul and your polling numbers are the main story the media will report. Media handicapping, in turn, dictates how easy it is for you to raise money. Everyone wants to curry favor with presumptive winners; no one gives to losers. So the more calls you make, the more successful they become.

This has more negative consequences than just distracting candidates from the real work of campaigning. More from Durning:

This means you’re spending hours every day, month after month, year after year, listening to the views of rich people. You develop a sixth sense for how this class will respond to different legislative proposals. They are the people you interact with most often.

Inevitably, this process warps your perspective. Or perhaps more than that, the process itself elevates politicians who are attuned to the rich.

In an effort to counteract this trend, in my last election I raised my first $10,000 from 1,000 donors in $10 increments, and that effort drastically changed who I was talking to and what the conversations looked like. In small events all over the city, I heard from many lower-income folks and college students who said they had never been asked for money by a politician before because they didn’t have much to give, but you can be sure they had a lot to say and some great ideas for what the future of Seattle should look like. And under the current system, their voices are all too often missing.

What if we could take the money race off the table and encourage candidates to focus solely on mobilizing support and leading on issues? I think we can, and am eager to explore the possibility of creating a system to publicly finance campaigns for City Council elections.

In the same election that passed district elections, there was another ballot measure to create a public financing system for at-large City Council seats (you can read a couple of my previous blog posts on last year’s measure here and here). Unfortunately, the measure narrowly lost 49.63% to 50.37%. That is a margin of just 1,426 out of a total 193,664 votes cast in that race. Pretty darn close. I think a big reason for the narrow defeat was due to confusion over how the system would interact with districts based elections, especially since the public financing question on the ballot was specific to at large seats.

Click on the image to view the presentation to the Education and Governance Committee

Click on the image to view the presentation to the Education and Governance Committee

So I am excited that we are again exploring public financing, and that we can look to craft a system to support both the seven district based Council seats and the two at-large seats. The first committee meeting to look at what a hybrid system could look like will be this morning at 9:30am in the Education and Governance Committee. You can tune in from your computer at seattle.gov/councillive, or you can also check out the presentation the Committee will be seeing here.

What do you think: should we ask voters again to create a public financing system for City Council elections? Let me know in the comments or send me an email with your thoughts at mike.obrien@seattle.gov.

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Comment from Michael O’Connell
Time May 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm

I couldn’t agree more about the need to take money out of politics and candidates out from having to raise funds. These are the biggest problems in the political arena, today. Absent a constitutional amendment, a public financing system for elections is the best and only option.

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