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Public Financing – a tradition of democracy in Seattle

Yesterday, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) convened to discuss a proposal for Public Financing of local elections in Seattle. During public testimony, John King from Washington Public Campaigns reminded the Commission that though exciting and complex, public financing of local elections is not a new idea. In fact, the public financing option has been a tradition in Seattle since we were the first municipality in the country to implement a program in 1979, a hallmark of our democratic best practices.

If you are not familiar with this history, I recommend checking out Councilmember Licata’s very good blog post from January on the topic.

As we explore reinstating a public financing program, the Council has been looking to experts and others around the country to determine best practices. We hosted two events in January and February where we heard from other cities with programs and experts to learn from their experience and knowledge on the topic. The Council has been particularly interested in three goals:

  1. Reducing barriers to entry for candidates
  2. Engaging more small-dollar donors in the electoral process
  3. Increasing competitiveness of elections

What we’ve heard so far is that Public Financing programs can have a measurable impact on the first two goals. Researchers of the New York City program shared data on how candidates spend more time in lower-income neighborhoods where they had never campaigned before with a 6:1 match in place for small donations. The program changed the calculus of where candidates spent their time.

There is also evidence that more people file and run for office with the option of public financing. There are signs of more competitive races (people win by smaller margins), too, but the evidence is less conclusive. We consistently heard that even if the outcome of a race didn’t change, the nature of the debate and the issues that got raised did change and, importantly, are more representative of the community as a whole.

Considering all this information, a subcommittee of the SEEC developed a proposal of how we might structure a system to work in Seattle.

Check out their memo summarizing the program and the corresponding proposal. The program they propose would only apply to City Council raises as a pilot program. Here is the gist of the program:

  • To qualify, it requires candidates to raise $15,000 from small donors ($10-$25 increments).
  • Candidates would have to reach between 600-1000 donors to achieve the threshold.
  • Once you qualify, the city would provide a 4:1 “super match” of $60,000 for the primary.
  • With $75,000 in hand, a candidate could be off and running on their campaign.
  • If a candidate makes it through the primary, the 4:1 super match concept returns for up to $60,000 in additional funds.

Now, candidates could still raise additional private funds, but there would be a spending cap of $250,000 for the full campaign (it gets a little more complicated than that, but for simplicity sake I’ll leave it there and encourage you to read the memo yourself).

During public testimony, folks from Fair Elections Seattle, Washington Public Campaigns and the League of Women Voters all supported the proposal and made their cases for why it’s time to implement public financing in Seattle. Fair Elections Seattle advocated for a higher public match and Washington Public Campaigns advocated for a system that limited the total spending in elections.

The Commission is doing the hard task of sorting through the details and trying to determine whether this model is the right way to achieve our objectives above.

Some of the details yet to be resolved:

  1. Do we have the right eligibility thresholds? What is the right dollar amount and number of donors needed to qualify?
  2. Should there be a spending cap? If so, how high must it be to encourage even well-financed candidates to opt-in?
  3. What’s the best revenue source to fund the program?

However we answer these details, this conversation is taking us in the right direction.

I applaud the SEEC for their thoughtful work on this issue and look forward to digging into it further when it comes the Council for review later this month.

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