The public financing concept that became Seattle Proposition 1 on the November ballot initially intrigued me. Of course, the devil’s in the details.
On Wednesday, the editorial board formally opposed Prop 1 and recommended voters pass Charter Amendment 19, a ballot measure that would move the city council from nine at-large elections to a hybrid system of seven districts and two at-large positions.
The biggest contrast between Charter Amendment 19 and Proposition 1 is cost. District elections are cheaper to run than citywide races. But with public financing, taxpayers foot the bill and have no choice where their money goes.
As we dug deeper, it became clear why Seattle Ethics and Election Commissioner Bruce Carter is a vocal opponent of Prop 1. In this Monday Seattle Times news report by reporter Bob Young, Carter called the public financing measure a “remedy in search of a problem.”
Yes, money influences politics but…
Data, however, doesn’t confirm that big money’s grip on City Hall is growing stronger.
Seattle limits contributions in council races to $700, far less than the $1,800 limits facing Metropolitan King County Council and state legislative candidates. The average contribution to City Council members in the 2011 election was $223, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), the city’s watchdog group.
While that average has increased over time, it hasn’t climbed every year. In 2009, the average contribution dropped to $178 from $213 in 2007. There were more contributions under $100 in 2009 city races than in any election since 2001, the SEEC reported, and fewer contributions over $600.
SEEC staff members believe the 2009 numbers were driven downward by the recession.
Still, total contributions to council candidates in an election year have never topped the $1.95 million collected in 2003. To date this year, the total amount is $795,000.
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As much as I appreciate the high-minded sentiment behind Prop 1, it has several flaws:
- The 600 donor threshold seems like a daunting challenge, but is it? Especially if incumbents have long email lists and attend functions all the time? How hard would it be to collect at least $10? According to a few City Hall insiders: Not very.
- And what about excessive spending by campaigns and independent political action groups? Prop 1 limits spending to $245,000 for participants, but if non-participants raise more or their associated PACs spend more — then the caps contained within Prop 1 are lifted. What’s the point?
- The City Council members who back this issue say they want to increase electoral competitiveness. According to this SEEC letter and this presentation before the Seattle City Council by University of Wisconsin-Madison Political Science Professor Kenneth Mayer, public financing may “increase competition, but the effects are small.” Though it may attract more candidates, research shows little effect on diversity and incumbent reelection rates.
- If public financing was mandated for all candidates in a race, I’d be more inclined to pay into the system. But the more I think of Prop 1’s opt-in provision, the more I’m bothered by the idea that my contribution could be used to prop up a campaign I fundamentally disagree with.
Seattle used to have public financing between 1979 and 1991. In Young’s report, he notes it was a voluntary checkoff system on utility bills. That’s very different from what’s being proposed in Prop 1.