Seattle Public Financing Going to the Voters

Later this afternoon, Seattle City Council is going to vote on an ordinance that would ask voters if they want to restore a public financing model to Seattle City Council elections.

Democracy is at its best when candidates can focus on the important issues facing our city, instead of who can raise the most money. I support this proposal and will be voting for it today.

The reasons I support voter-owned elections are numerous, but they all stem from reducing the role of money in politics and strengthening our local democracy. I think this proposal would do the following towards these ends:

  • Minimizing the role of money in politics. Everyone I speak with agrees this is a good objective in and of itself. I believe big money has a corrosive influence in our system, particularly at the federal level. This proposal is all about changing the focus of our local elections to give candidates the chance to compete on the issues that matter most to Seattle voters.
  • Bringing new people into local politics. Cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles have public financing, and, in those cities, candidates to spend more time engaging voters on the issues. We’ve heard this has the effect of bringing many new people into the democratic process as candidates spend more time in low-income communities and diverse communities that were often overlooked prior to public financing.
  • More issues discussed. Changing the incentives for candidates running for City Council will strengthen public debate of the issues. Instead of focusing on who can write $700 checks, candidates would instead focus on finding 600 small donors. This dramatically alters who candidates engage with and, just as importantly, what issues get aired during a campaign.
  • More candidates competing. Lowering barriers to entry for grassroots candidates who may have strong community support but lack connection to big donors. With more candidates running and competing, we have a chance at greater representation among our elected leaders. Additionally, this model allows candidates to focus on the issues and not spend 15 to 20 hours each week fundraising throughout the course of the campaign. That is more time a candidate can use to connect with voters or hold down their day job (including allowing incumbents to focus on the work of legislating while in office instead of campaigning).

Background

Seattle was the first municipality in the country to introduce public financing, also called “voter-owned elections,” in 1979, but has not had an operating program since 1992.  Once approved by the Council, the proposal would be sent to Seattle voters on the November ballot.

To opt into the program, candidates must first qualify by collecting contributions of $10 or more from at least 600 Seattle residents. Once qualified, donations up to $50 would be matched six-to-one on the first $35,000 raised. Candidates who fully utilize the matching system would receive $210,000 in public funds throughout the entire campaign, split between the primary and general elections. Voters would be asked to approve a 6-year, $9 million property tax levy to finance the program, which would cost an estimated $2 million per year, or about $5.76 for a home valued at $350,000. Candidates would have the option to run for office without participating in the public financing program.

Seattle had partial public financing of campaigns in 1979 and 1981, and from 1987-1991. In 1992, state Initiative 134 passed, prohibiting public financing. In 2008 the State legislature adopted legislation allowing local jurisdictions to establish programs to publicly finance campaigns, if approved by a public vote, and the funding is derived from local sources only (in this case, a property tax).

In December 2012, Councilmembers Sally J. Clark, Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen and I sent a letter to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) asking the body to recommend a public financing model that meets three goals: (1) increases electoral competitiveness, (2) reduces financial barriers to entry for candidates and (3) increases the role and emphasis of small donors in the electoral process. In March, the SEEC delivered its recommendations to Council for consideration, over which the City Council’s Public Campaign Finance Committee has been deliberating since April.

The Council’s public financing proposal would only apply to City Council races and would be instituted in the 2015 elections.

The details of the plan are explained through a series of questions and answers. If you have other questions, feel free to email me at mike.obrien@seattle.gov.

Public Financing Q&A:

Does a candidate need an opponent to qualify for matching funds?      

Yes. Public funds will not be disbursed in races with only one candidate.

How does a candidate qualify for matching funds?

Candidates would need to collect contributions of $10 or greater from 600 Seattle residents in order to qualify.

How long do you have to collect the minimum qualifying contributions to officially become eligible for public match funds?

Candidates would have from January 1 of the year of the election until 21 days after the filing deadline to collect qualifying contributions. For example, using the 2013 election year as an example, a candidate would have had from January 1, 2013 until June 7, 2013 (filing deadline was May 17, 2013) to collect $10 or more from 600 Seattle residents.

When do you need to declare your intent to participate in the program?

Candidates would have from January 1 of the year of the election until 21 days after the filing deadline to opt into the program, but must declare intent before collecting any contributions that will be used to qualify.

What is the maximum value of a qualifying donation that will be matched?

The public matching funds will be capped at $50 of any qualifying donation.

At what rate will qualifying donations be matched?

Private qualifying donations will be matched by public funds at a rate of 6:1.

What is the maximum amount a participant can receive?

Candidates who qualify for the program and maximize the public matching funds will receive $210,000 in public matching funds for the entire election, including both primary and general elections.

What is the maximum amount a participant can receive in the Primary?

Public matching funds will be capped at $105,000 for the primary election.

Will participants be held to a spending cap on total expenditures during the campaign?

Yes. Spending by candidates participating in the public financing system will be capped at $140,000 in expenditures in the primary election and at $245,000 in expenditures for both the primary and general elections combined.

 

What other key requirements are in place for becoming a Participating Candidate?

Candidates who opt into and qualify for public matching funds must agree to participate in a minimum of three public forums or debates during the course of the campaign.

What if a participating candidate does not draw a credible opponent? Does an opponent need to meet a specific threshold prior in order for a participating candidate to be eligible for matching funds?

Yes. The opponent of a participating candidate must have raised at least $6,000 in order to trigger the full release of public matching funds.

Must qualifying donations come from residents of Seattle?

Yes. Only donations from Seattle residents are eligible for matching funds.

Must qualifying donations come from registered voters in Seattle?

No. Qualifying donations can come from any Seattle residents.

Must qualifying donations come from individuals (not corporations or groups)?

Yes. Only donations from individuals residing in Seattle will be eligible for matching funds. No contributions from businesses, labor unions, PACs or other organizations will be matched with public funds.

Are participants prohibited from taking donations from corporations or groups?

No. Participating candidates may accept contributions from businesses, labor unions, PACs or other organizations, but these funds will not be matched by public funds. Additionally, funds raised from these groups will count towards the overall spending cap of the campaign, and could result in less public matching funds for a candidate.

What happens in the event that the combined funds raised and by an opponent and/or Independent Expenditure supporting the opponent exceed the cap ($140,000 in the primary or $245,000 in the general) limit that the publicly funded candidate has agreed to?            

The primary and general election caps on the candidates participating in the public financing program will be lifted in the event that either (a) the privately funded opponent’s fundraising exceed the cap, or (b) Independent Expenditures supporting an opponent exceed the cap.

How will Independent Expenditures be attributed to specific candidates?

The Director of the Seattle Ethics Elections Commission will make the initial determination based on an assessment of which candidate(s) benefited from the Independent Expenditure. The Commission would hear appeals.

How will the public financing program be funded and administered?

The costs for funding and administering the program would be funded through a property tax levy of six-years, for up to $2 million per year.

What elements of the program can be modified by the Council, if adopted by the public?

The Council can make slight modifications to the program if adopted by the public, including any program dollar value by no more than 15% and the number of matching contributions by no more than 100, but only after receiving a report with recommendations from the Commission.

What happens to the Program if the District elections ballot measure is approved by voters?

The program being put to the ballot would only apply to the citywide, “at-large” Council seats, and will not apply to the seven districts created. Council could go back to the voters in future years to amend the public financing system to include districts, if the district proposal should also pass in November.

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