Finance

Should Taxpayers Fund Seattle City Council Campaigns?

A ballot measure in Seattle is asking voters to make it one of a handful of cities that uses public funds to pay for city council races.
by | October 28, 2013
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn during a debate.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has endorsed the ballot measure that would make Seattle one of a handful of cities that match private contributions with public funds in city council races. AP/Ted S. Warren

Should taxpayers fund city council campaigns? That’s the question raised by a ballot measure before Seattle voters on Nov. 5. If it passes, Seattle would become one of a handful of cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and New Haven, that match private contributions with public funds in city races. Proponents say the measure would boost democratic governance. Detractors object to the funding source -- their own property taxes -- and argue that the policy wouldn’t improve city governance or elections.

Eight of nine members of the Seattle City Council have endorsed the measure, as has Mayor Mike McGinn. That has struck some local journalists as odd, considering that public financing could encourage more people to challenge incumbents. Councilman Nick Licata says he doesn’t think public financing would radically alter who runs for office or who wins, but “it’s a way to reinvigorate the council (because) you’ll actually find incumbents looking at problems differently and offering new solutions.”

Licata argues that a system overhaul might encourage candidates to interact with a more diverse constituency, which would help the council better represent average voters’ interests. Under the current system, “there’s a natural trend to collect large donations rather than small donations because it’s time efficient,” Licata says. “The viewpoints of electeds have become skewed towards those who have a monetary interest in public policy.”

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If the measure passes any city council candidate who raises 600 individual contributions worth at least $10 would qualify for public financing. At that point, individual contributions of $50 or less would be matched by public money on a 6:1 basis. For example, if a candidate raised $1,000 in private donations, the candidate would receive an additional $6,000 in public matching funds. Candidates could raise up to $210,000 in public funds. There are also spending caps put into place for the primary ($140,000) and the overall election ($245,000). Under the proposal, a property owner whose home is assessed at $450,000 -- roughly the median home value in Seattle -- would pay $7.38 more in property taxes each year, starting in 2014. The law would have a sunset provision, forcing the council to seek approval from voters again in six years.

The measure faces no organized opposition. No political action committee is raising money to defeat the proposal. But there are a few skeptics, including the state’s largest daily newspaper, The Seattle Times, which concluded that the proposal “aims high, falls short of improving elections.” In the paper’s anti-endorsement, editorial writer Thanh Tan notes that if an opponent raises more than $210,000, the law’s fundraising cap is waived and the publicly financed candidate can chase after more private donations. “What’s the point?” she asks. Tan highlights another concern: Taxpayers would inevitably fund campaigns they didn't support.

Bruce Carter, a Seattle Ethics and Elections Commissioner, calls the proposal a “remedy in search of a problem” because the average contribution for a city council race is already low -- $231 in the last election. Carter also argues that in other cities that have tried public financing programs, it was in response to some kind of campaign finance scandal. No such triggering event has occurred in Seattle in recent elections.

Finally, critics point to research by political scientist Kenneth Mayer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which found that when states have fully funded campaigns, they haven’t seen significant reductions in the competitive advantage of incumbents; furthermore, his research shows that publicly funded elections haven’t resulted in more women winning public office, or a big change in the diversity of candidates running. Mayer visited Seattle earlier this year to present his findings to the council. Opponents of the measure have included links to Mayer's Powerpoint presentation in their voter guide statement.

Opponents use Mayer’s findings to argue that his research proves public financing doesn’t work. But Mayer supports the proposal. “There are positive things that these programs can do,” he says, such as increasing participation among small donors who don't usually contribute to local elections. “If I were in Seattle and could vote, I would vote for it.”

Most of the political science research on public financing of elections -- including Mayer’s -- isn’t directly applicable to the model being proposed in Seattle. That's because those state programs are structured differently, and the differences are meaningful. In states that fully fund elections, candidates don’t have an incentive to increase the number of small donations from individuals. Instead, they only have to raise enough to qualify for public funding, and then they receive a lump sum grant from the state that covers the rest of their campaign expenses. By comparison, the Seattle model should force candidates to continue collecting small, private donations in order to leverage the public match. In the end, that would mean candidates seeking the support of more individual donors who only have to give small amounts of money.

As Mayer noted in his presentation to the council, there is some research about a matching model in New York City that suggests participation among small donors does in fact go up. A report by the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., found that the introduction of public matching did coincide with New York City council candidates collecting a greater number of contributions from small donors; more importantly, many of those additional donors lived in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. “It seems be giving average citizens a chance to play a bigger role in the election,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute.

No one knows if citizens in Seattle will approve the measure. A poll by SurveyUSA taken Oct. 10-13 found that 42 percent of respondents were not certain if they would vote yes or no. Only 15 percent said they were certain to vote yes.

Councilman Mike O’Brien, who has been campaigning for the measure during his own re-election bid, says it always takes him a few minutes to explain what the measure is and how it would work. “The vast majority of people don't know about it,” he says. Yet in stump speeches, when he mentions the general idea -- removing big money from politics -- “it’s the line that gets the biggest applause.”

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