Portland Enacts Small Donor Public Financing

The city council in Portland, Oregon, voted to create a system of public campaign financing that will make it easier for candidates with community support to run effective campaigns even without wealthy connections.

December 16, 2016

This week, the city council in Portland, Oregon, voted to create a system of public campaign financing that will amplify the voices of ordinary citizens in local politics. It is one of a string of recent victories for reformers at the state and local level despite the dominance of opponents of reform in the federal government

Portland’s public financing system will make it easier for candidates with community support to run effective campaigns even if they don’t have wealthy connections. Ordinary voters who can’t afford big donations will be a powerful constituency within the city’s campaign finance system.

Candidates who opt in to the new system agree to abide by a $250 contribution limit. (Currently, there is no limit on donations to candidates.) Up to the first $50 of donations to participating candidates from Portland residents will be matched with public funds at a ratio of six-to-one. So, for example, a donation of $10 will be worth $70 to the candidate. In order to qualify for participation, candidates have to raise a set number of small donations within the city, depending on which office they are seeking.

The program is similar to the successful small donor systems in Los Angeles and New York City, which have brought a new class of donors into politics, especially from traditionally overlooked low-income and minority communities. Public financing has also been the key to encouraging a more diverse class of candidates to run and decreasing the number of uncontested elections where the incumbent automatically wins.

One way that Portland’s program is unlike those other public financing systems is the lack of contribution limits for candidates that don’t opt in. That means that candidates will have to choose between relying only on matched small donations on the one hand, or keeping the option of attracting huge checks on the other. It’s worth watching how those incentives affect the popularity of the system with candidates, since a public financing system can’t succeed if candidates don’t participate.

Portland’s new law follows several campaign finance reform victories secured on Election Day around the country. South Dakota voters approved an initiative to increase accountability in elections and create a public funding system deploying vouchers. Other public financing programs were approved in Berkeley, California, and Howard County, Maryland. Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved limits on the amount of contributions that candidates can accept. These November wins come on the heels of other reforms from the past few years, including newly created public financing systems in Seattle and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Poll after poll shows that Americans are disgusted by the role that money plays in politics. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign harnessed some of that disgust. But it remains to be seen what he will do to fulfill his promise to “drain the swamp”—and his decisions to tap many big campaign donors for cabinet positions does not bode well. But it’s clear that needed reforms will continue to advance at the local level.

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