Most people intuitively understand that there is a problem with our political system: all too often, money equals influence. Because financing of campaigns is so expensive, a select number of wealthy donors has increasingly drowned out the voices of nearly everyone else. It’s disturbing and undemocratic, but also a fact of politics in the United States, even at the local level.
Seattle, Washington is no exception. In recent years, small donors have increasingly been crowded out of Seattle’s electoral process. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission reports that small contributions—those under $100—have gone from making up 63 percent of city council donations in 2001 to just 32 percent in 2011, an almost 50 percent decrease in the proportional impact of small donors.1 Since 2003, the number of contributors in Seattle has nearly halved while the average campaign contribution has risen dramatically, showing that candidates are reaching out to fewer and richer donors.
But Seattle, Washington is different than most of the country in one important way: it may be doing something about this disturbing trend. Earlier this week, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance clearing the way for the public financing of council elections. Seattle voters will be asked to approve the program in November.
Seattle’s proposal would provide qualifying candidates with a 6-to-1 match for the first $50 of each contribution. So, a $50 contribution would actually be worth $350 to the candidate (6 x $50 = $300 in matching funds + $50 original contribution = $350). Only candidates with substantial public support — those receiving at least 600 donations of at least $10 — could participate in the program. The other caveats are that a candidate must be running in a contested election and must appear in three debates.
To pay for the program, voters will have to agree to a slight increase in the property tax. According to an estimate by The Seattle Times, the owner of a $400,000 home would initially pay an additional $6.60 annually in property taxes to launch the program, an amount that would decline in subsequent years.
Testifying in support of the new system at a hearing on the proposal, the Brennan Center’s David Earley said, “By replacing large private donations with no-strings-attached public funds, candidates can act solely in their constituents’ interests rather than in the interests of big campaign donors and political spenders.”
Seattle’s program mirrors one that has been in place in New York City for the past 25 years. A Brennan Center study found that small-donor matching increased the diversity of contributors while assisting worthy candidates who would otherwise be unable to compete. This led to more contested and more competitive elections, as well as impressive gains in candidate diversity. In fact, the first Dominican-American, first Asian-American, first Asian-American woman, and the first African-American woman from Staten Island used public financing to get elected to the New York City Council.
Seattle’s proposal is a major step toward ensuring that everybody is able to participate in the democratic process, be it as candidate or as a voter.
1This counts the number of donations as opposed to the share of aggregate donations. In other words, in 2001 more than six in ten contributions were for under $100, whereas today about three in ten are less than $100.