Seattle Voters Reject Public Financing of Council Campaigns

Seattle voters rejected a ballot measure that would have made the city one of a handful that match private contributions with public funds in council races.

Seattle voters rejected a ballot measure Nov. 5 that would have created a public financing mechanism for city council campaigns, with 54 percent voting no. If passed, the measure would have asked for an additional $7.38 in annual property taxes from the average homeowner in Seattle; that money would have created a complex funding instrument that matched small private donations with public dollars, with caps on fundraising and spending. If the measure had passed, Seattle would have become one of a handful of cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, that match private contributions with public funds in city races.

The editorial board for the state’s largest daily newspaper, The Seattle Times, advised voters to reject the measure, as did the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Despite those two groups’ opposition, no political action committee formed to raise and spend money against the ballot measure. The most vocal critic of the proposal was an ethics and elections commissioner who argued it was trying to solve a problem -- big money in local politics -- that didn’t exist.

READ: Our full 2013 election coverage

An active campaign in favor of the measure, Fair Elections Seattle, raised about $91,952 by Nov. 4 and won the endorsement of Mayor Mike McGinn and eight of the nine city council members. Labor unions, the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, and the metropolitan area’s main good-government nonprofit, the Municipal League of King County, all backed the measure.

Nonetheless, there were signs that the measure would fail. Councilman Mike O’Brien, who campaigned in favor of the proposal, said that he consistently found voters who didn’t know what the measure was and didn’t understand how it would work. 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. And while the public financing campaign raised money, it was far less than another election reform on the ballot -- a measure to create districts for seven of the at-large council members. The redistricting proposal, by comparison, raised $262,861 and won about 65 percent of the vote.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.