City of Seattle seal

City of Seattle seal

On Monday, June 24, the City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance sending a proposal for public financing of campaigns to the November ballot. If adopted by the voters, the proposal would authorize the Council to authorize a small property tax increment (about $4 per household) in order to provide the opportunity for candidates to secure most of the funding for their campaigns from public resources instead of private donations.

Seattle had a similar program in effect until 1994, when the authorization for public campaign financing was repealed by the State. That authorization was restored in 2008, but at that time the Council decided that the midst of a recession was not a good time to present this program to the voters. Now that Seattle is fully into the recovery, we decided that it would be appropriate to ask the voters’ guidance on whether public financing of campaigns was a priority.

The idea of reducing the role of private money in campaigns was popularized in the 1970’s by Common Cause, and the Presidential election check off on the 1040 form was adopted as the first step at the national level. Since then, public financing at the national level has languished, with both Presidential candidates declining public financing in 2012. However, a number of states and localities have been experimenting with it over the last few years.

The Seattle proposal would provide up to $210,000 in matching funds for Council candidates who secure 600 donations of at least $10 from Seattle residents. Donations up to $50 per person would be matched at a 6 to 1 ratio until the maximum of $210,000 was reached. Candidates who accept public financing would be limited to spending $245,000 for the campaign, unless they faced an opponent who was spending significantly more, in which case they would be allowed to raise additional private funds and exceed the cap.

There are a number of arguments for public campaign financing. The ones that are most relevant to Seattle are:

  • It encourages a broader range of candidates to consider running.
  • It encourages candidates to seek larger numbers of small donations.
  • It sends a message that the role of private money in campaigns should be reduced.
  • It frees candidates to spend more time campaigning and less time raising money.

While these are good arguments for the program, most public financing programs have been targeted at political systems where entrenched incumbents raised very large amounts of money from large donors and intimidated or vastly outspent those without connections. In Seattle, campaign spending for City Council is quite modest, averaging only about $1 per voter – in contrast, candidates in many cities spend $50 to $100 per voter. In comparison to other cities, Seattle has more competitive elections and a lower rate of reelection for incumbents. And Seattle has a strictly enforced campaign contribution limit of $700 per person, which requires candidates to develop a broad base of campaign contributors.

Public financing has also sometimes been prompted by public concern over real or perceived corruption. However, Seattle has a very clean election record, and, again, the contribution limit and a vigorous enforcement process through the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission have kept Seattle politics on the straight and narrow. When I try to explain our only recent scandal, the “Strippergate” fiasco, to people from other cities, they are impressed that accepting contributions (within the legal limit!) related a small issue (a zoning modification to allow some parking spaces adjacent to a business) was a major factor in the defeat of two Councilmembers. When I further explain that another Councilmember was fined a thousand dollars for accepting a $10 lunch, they are incredulous. To be clear, I applaud the strong enforcement actions – but they are an argument that the current system works quite well!

So, on balance, the benefits from a public financing system in Seattle are modest compared to many other places where it has or could be adopted. But they are real benefits, and I and the other Councilmembers believe that it is appropriate to ask the public to consider adopting this proposal.