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Seattle Takes Innovative Approach to Limiting Big Money’s Political Power

A citizen coalition in Seattle has introduced an innovative proposal to amplify the voices of average voters in the city’s elections.

  • Brent Ferguson
April 21, 2015

A citizen coalition in Seattle has introduced an innovative proposal to help “amplify the voices of ordinary people and limit the power of big money in Seattle elections and city government,” according to a recent story in the Seattle Times. The initiative, proposed by a coalition called Honest Elections Seattle, will likely be voted on as a ballot initiative in 2015 and would enact new campaign finance, lobbying, disclosure, and enforcement rules. If implemented, it would help blunt the effects of damaging decisions like Citizens United by encouraging candidates to raise money from small donors instead of corporations.

To prevent corruption and its appearance, the initiative would forbid campaign contributions from corporations that have large contracts with the city. It would also ban contributions from any person who has spent more than $5,000 in the last year to pay lobbyists for work on matters regulated by the city. Further, it would prevent elected officials, department heads, and their top aides from serving as paid lobbyists for three years after leaving their government position.

The initiative also improves transparency and disclosure rules, requiring immediate electronic reporting of all contributions to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC).

One noteworthy component of the proposed law is a voluntary voucher program, in which each registered voter would receive four $25 vouchers that could be given to any participating city candidate, or spread among a few. The program is a modified version of public financing systems like New York City’s that encourage small donor participation, and its objective is to make it easy and costless for average voters who can’t afford jumbo political contributions to play a meaningful role in campaigns. By stimulating a mass of small donations to candidates, the voucher system would give candidates who rely on contributions from everyday citizens rather than wealthy individuals and corporations a chance to compete. Once in office, successful candidates would be beholden to their constituents rather than a small group of financial backers.

For the last 25 years, New York City’s small-donor matching program has shown how political systems can improve if elections are designed to encourage participation and increase donor diversity. Seattle’s voucher proposal aims to serve similar goals.

Candidates who use the voucher program would be limited in how much money they can raise and spend, ensuring that they rely principally on small donations when campaigning. Yet to encourage participation and help candidates fight against big super PAC spending, the limits are lifted if a participating candidate faces a candidate whose financial support exceeds a certain level.

The Brennan Center enthusiastically supports Seattle’s proposal, and will work with local and national groups in the coming months to support its passage. The creativity and dedication shown by the initiative’s proponents in Seattle are a great demonstration of how cities and states are the new laboratories of meaningful pushback against Citizens United, the rise of super PACs, and a Congress too dysfunctional to enact needed reforms to address the explosion of election spending.

(Photo: Flickr/HowardIgnatius)