Voter-Owned Elections: The 60-cent question

By Israel Bayer
Staff Writer

Portland voters will decide this coming November whether or not to continue with Voter-Owned Elections. The program allows for candidates to recruit 1,000 $5 donations to qualify for $150,000 in city funding toward a primary race, and $200,000 if the candidate makes it to the general election.

The program has heralded some successes in its five-year history, helping current City Commissioner Amanda Fritz get elected to City Council, and supporting former commissioner Erik Sten who spearheaded the program during his tenure in office.

The program has also seen some busts. Most recently, Jesse Cornett, a Democratic insider spent more than $145,000 of public money for a mere 8 percent of the vote in May’s primary election against incumbent Dan Saltzman.

Street Roots invited the League of Women Voters, a strong supporter of the system, and the Portland Business Alliance, a powerful downtown business organization that has opposed Voter-Owned Elections, to a question and answer session on the topic. The Portland Business Alliance declined the invitation.

Carol Cushman, membership director with the League of Women Voters, had these comments to our questions:

Israel Bayer: How is Voter-Owned Elections shaping our city and how it operates?

Carol Cushman: Voter-Owned Elections (VOE) benefits Portland voters by allowing grassroots candidates to seek elective office based on their experience, ideas and values rather than on whether they have access to large campaign donors. After meeting strict qualifying requirements, Voter-Owned Elections candidates are banned from raising money from downtown developers, or other special interests. Instead they can spend their time talking directly with voters. Independence is gained when reform program candidates are elected. They can focus on community concerns because there isn’t pressure on them to give special consideration to large campaign donors, as historically has been the case for privately-funded candidates.

Voter-Owned Elections enables everyday Portlanders to decide who should run for office. A VOE candidate has to gather signatures and $5 contributions from at least 1,000 Portland voters to qualify. After meeting this rigorous threshold and agreeing to raise no more money and to strict rules on campaign spending, qualifying candidates receive adequate public funds to run a viable campaign. Their spending is limited and election administrators closely regulate their campaigns.

Because of Voter-Owned Elections, a neighborhood activist like Commissioner Amanda Fritz, only the seventh woman to serve on the City Council in its 160-year history, can win with grassroots support from everyday Portlanders from neighborhoods across Portland.

I.B.: From the Oregonian Editorial Board on May 22, “After five years -— and $1,755,869 spent on 11 council candidates (two of whom won, Amanda Fritz and Erik Sten) — it’s not clear that the city’s Voter-Owned Election system has done anything to boost the integrity or even the vitality of city elections.” How would you respond to this analysis?

C.C.: Prior to Voter-Owned Elections, the candidate who spent the most money won 87 percent of the time, often in uncompetitive campaigns without a meaningful discussion of city issues. Before VOE, a candidate spent $1 million to win election – almost all raised from large donors, many of whom have interests that might be affected by decisions made at City Hall. Even the appearance of easy access and special favors for donors damages trust and faith in city government. Since VOE began, even candidates who choose not to participate are voluntarily limiting their campaign spending and limiting how much money they’ll take from a donor. It’s clear to see that even in the few elections since it began, Voter-Owned Elections is reducing special interest influence and reducing the total amount of campaign spending and large special interest contributions.

The cost of Voter-Owned Elections program is capped at two-tenths on one percent of the city budget and involves no new taxes or fees. We’re not even close to that limit and this fact puts the $1,755,869 cost into perspective.

It is helpful to divide the $1.7 million cost by the five years the program has been in effect and our City’s population and you will see it works out to 60 cents per Portlander per year. Portland voters understand they are getting a bargain by spending 60 cents per year in return for fair and equitable campaigns protected from the interests of the downtown developers and big business who have historically dominated campaign fundraising.

For further cost comparison, one city commissioner testifying in support of Voter-Owned Elections in 2005 said, “on the funding issue … forgoing just one unnecessary tax abatement could more than pay for the costs (of Voter-Owned Elections).”

I.B.: What is the measure of success for this kind of policy?

C.C.: The success of Voter-Owned Elections can be measured against the growing influence of money in politics prior to its adoption. For example, during the last pre-reform election in 2004, 69 percent of the money raised by city candidates came in checks of $1,000 or more, an amount far higher than what any regular Portland family could afford.  That entry fee to genuine participation in city campaigns contrasts starkly to the affordable $5 qualifying contribution that gives everyday Portlanders throughout the city a chance to compete with downtown lobbyists and political insiders who dominated past private money fundraising.

Because of Voter-Owned Elections there hasn’t been a repeat of the record $ 1 million a 2004 mayoral candidate spent on his campaign. Spending on council races also has decreased. The 2008 council open seat primary included six candidates. They provided voters with a robust discussion of the issues with less overall spending than did the comparable pre-reform 2004 open seat race with only two viable candidates.

Because of Voter-Owned Elections we’ve seen incumbents turn their back on past major donors and cap the size of campaign contributions to $500 or less, even when they don’t participate in the reform program. The potential for special interests to promote their views in City Hall is reduced by the dramatically smaller campaign contributions since 2004 due to Voter-Owned Elections.

I.B.: How can the current Voter Owned Election systems be improved? What’s going right, what’s wrong?

C.C.: The Voter-Owned Elections program, also called the Campaign Finance Fund, has a built-in mechanism for continual evaluation and program improvements with a focus on adding safeguards to an already strict program. A hard-working group of volunteers serve on the Citizens Campaign Commission. This group monitors program implementation and has released reports with suggestions for improvements after each election since Voter-Owned Elections was enacted. We thank them for their hard work and thank the City Council for adopting their recommendations including, but not limited to, how best to address independent expenditures, special election procedures, and, increased rigor in qualifying procedures.

Any law requires review and updates and the City Council is to be commended for forming the Citizens Campaign Commission to ensure ongoing improvements are made in the Voter-Owned Elections Program.

I.B.: Should there be a cap put on how much candidates can spend if they accept public money for their elections?

C.C.: A cap on spending is already a critical element of Voter-Owned Elections and a condition of accepting public funds. Once candidates meet rigorous qualifying requirements, they agree not to accept any private money contributions so that as candidates they can focus on talking with voters and community concerns, instead of spending their time chasing after deep-pocketed campaign donors. Candidates also must comply with spending regulations and report campaign expenditures more frequently than is currently required under state law. We thank the city auditor and elections officer for their vigilant oversight that ensures compliance with all reform program rules.

I.B.: How should Portlanders vote this coming November on Voter Owned Elections, and why?

C.C.: Vote “yes” for Voter-Owned Elections, Portland’s campaign finance fund.

All of Portland benefits because Voter-Owned Elections has reduced campaign spending, increased dialogue on community issues during campaigns, and enabled genuine participation by everyday Portlanders in selecting their City Hall representatives. Candidates can say “no” to big donors and address city concerns without even the potential for, or appearance of special interest influence.

We trust Portlanders to see through the self interest of Voter-Owned Elections opponents who want to return to the days when their major campaign contributions enabled them to put pressure on the City Council.

2 responses to “Voter-Owned Elections: The 60-cent question

  1. It says bundles that the Portland Business Alliance couldn’t be bothered to talk to Street Roots.

    VOE is a good first step to create positive Campaign Finance Reform.

    Instant Runoff Voting [IRV] would eliminate the need for runoffs, like the one between Fritz and Charles Lewis. IRV is a process of ranking candidates, instead of choosing just one of them. Then if no candidate got a specified % of the vote, the counting of the 2nd and 3rd palce votes would kick in.

    Finally, we need the granddaddy of all campaign finance reform measures enacted – no corporate donations to/for/against candidates.

    The Citizens vs. United decision has set this idea back some, but if we really want fair elections in this country, that’s what we need to do.

    All three of these compliment each other. None of them do the job completely, but all of them tackle a part of it.

  2. Pingback: Writing of late… « Rocket Poetry

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