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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.

(Photo: Think­Stock)