November 6, 2015
On Tuesday, Seattle voters approved a ballot initiative to create a new, unique system of public financing elections. Every registered voter in the city will receive, free, four $25 coupons, known as “democracy vouchers,” that they can give to candidates of their choice in local elections. So instead of limiting certain kinds of spending, which can be difficult after recent Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United v. FEC, Seattle’s plan would give spending power to citizens who don’t otherwise have it.
The effect of Seattle’s democracy vouchers goes beyond just boosting the power of ordinary voters, though. If candidates want to accept money from the vouchers, they have to seek and obtain a minimum number of small donations (under $100) on their own. Then they have to agree to a set of rules on how they’ll run their campaigns: strict spending limits, a lower limit on individual private contributions, and they have to agree not to fundraise for outside groups who would spend that money on the election. They also have to agree to take part in at least three debates.
Some other provisions of Seattle’s ballot initiative haven’t gotten as much attention as the vouchers, but they represent important steps in the fight to curb the influence of money in politics. New provisions limit the ability of the mayor, a city council member, the city attorney, or anyone running for those positions, to accept campaign contributions from major city contractors or from businesses or industries that lobby the city – a so-called pay-to-play law. Another new rule would address concerns about powerful city officials who turn immediately to lobbying when they leave office; it prevents them from being paid to lobby for three years after they leave.
In Maine, voters demonstrated their commitment to sustaining a public financing system even when outside events threaten to undermine it. Maine’s Clean Election Act has been an example of public funding working on the state level since the 2000 elections; at one point, 85 percent of Maine’s state legislature was reportedly elected using this process. However, Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett (a decision that limited some aspects of public financing of elections) weakened Maine’s system. On Tuesday, Maine’s voters revitalized the system by ensuring that it was funded in a way that would comply with the Supreme Court’s opinions.
As in Seattle, Maine’s ballot initiative also included provisions designed to take steps in addition to public financing to reign in the effect of money on elections. One major provision requires disclosure of the funders of so-called “issue” ads, which are generally run by outside groups. The new rule requires this kind of ad to contain information about the top funder or funders of the organization running the ad. Another provision increased the penalties for violating the campaign finance law.
It can be easy to rail against money in politics generally, and it can be easy to be cynical about the prospect of making positive changes to address the problems it causes. Voters in Seattle and Maine showed the country that we can bring new solutions to the table, and that we can sustain and improve systems that work. CREW supported these initiatives and will join many others in working to lay the groundwork for similar progress in cities and states going forward. Yesterday’s votes provide an example we can all learn from and celebrate.