The influence of money in local elections and what we can do about it

Last week, I published a guest editorial in the Seattle Times titled “Democracy strengthened by limiting money’s role in local elections.” In the editorial, I make the case that:

Our city is better served when I am challenged by smart, committed women and men who believe they can make a difference. If we take these steps to limit the role of money in local elections, we’ll help protect the most basic right of our democratic system — the right to make your community stronger by running for public office.

As I have written about before (on April 5 and May 14), the Seattle Ethics and Elections Committee (SEEC) has been considering the role that surplus campaign funds should play in future elections. Picking up on this opportunity and being generally distraught about the role of money in our national politics, I sent a letter with two of my colleagues, Councilmembers Burgess and Clark, to the SEEC asking them to weigh in on two ideas to limit the role of money in our local elections.

As a reminder, the ideas are to restrict the rollover of surplus campaign funds from one election to the next to $5,000, and to limit campaign fundraising to begin in January of the election year.

At last week’s SEEC meeting where they took up these issues, I testified in favor of the ideas and had an opportunity to answer their questions. You can check out the meeting in the video below.

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Other people speaking in favor of the ideas included: Jon King, of Washinton Public Campaigns; Toby Guevin, of One America; Nancy Amedei, for the Civic Engagement Project; and former Seattle Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck.

Nancy, a longtime educator and promoter of civic engagement, said that when she recently asked a group of students the first things they hear of when it comes to politics, their responses were: “Sleazy, corrupt, in it for the money.” I find it very troubling that our youth have such cynicism in our system, but I know they aren’t alone and it is hard to keep faith when we see what is going on nationally. Indeed, I believe that locally we also need to rebuild trust between our elected leaders and those we represent. We need to do everything in our power to dismantle any perceptions of corruption, and I think limiting the amount of time that we are making policy and accepting campaign donations is a smart, simple step we can take.

The SEEC asked a number of good questions but ultimately recommended that Seattle minimize the rollover of surplus funds to the maximum extent possible. Additionally, while I proposed a fundraising window beginning on January 1 of the election year, the SEEC recommends limiting the window to begin 12 months before the primary.

The Municipal League of King County is also weighing in on these proposals and will provide their recommendation at their next board meeting on June 25. With these positive recommendations from the SEEC, I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Council to introduce and implement some version of these two ideas in an effort to strengthen our local democracy and limit the role of money in our politics.

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