Over the last decade, Americans have become increasingly convinced that their government is for sale to the highest bidder, rather than an instrument of the people. Even in Washington State, PACs, parties, unions, and other organizations give about three-quarters of the money for state legislative campaigns, while individuals—We the People—contribute only about one-quarter. This November, voters in Cascadia’s most populous jurisdiction, the state of Washington, will likely have the chance to buck this trend.
The Washington Government Accountability Act, Initiative 1464, is the most comprehensive and far-reaching package of reforms to money-in-politics laws anywhere on the continent this year. A bi-partisan coalition called Integrity Washington, with which Sightline has been working on policy design for more than two years, is hard at work gathering signatures, with the hope to qualify for the ballot by July 8.
So what’s in this initiative? It has four main components, each reinforcing the others with the potential to make Washington State an exemplar of good government and accountable elections practices.
In this new series of articles, we will lay out the details of the Accountability Act’s provisions, explaining how they will work. Here, though, we begin with an overview of I-1464 in four categories.
1. Blocking Big Money’s influence
The Washington Government Accountability Act limits contractors’ and lobbyists’ ability to “pay to play” in state politics by curtailing their campaign donations if they have a financial stake in the election outcome. The act forbids contractors from giving more than $100 to any candidate who, if elected, would be in a position to decide whether they receive a public contract. Similarly, the act stops lobbyists from giving more than $100 to any candidate who would have authority over an issue the lobbyist advocates about.
Another way that special interests maintain influence over public decisions is by offering former politicians and their staff lucrative careers as lobbyists. Former public servants pump their old relationships in the capitol to the benefit of their new employers. The Accountability Act closes this revolving door by requiring former politicians and their staff to wait at least three years after leaving office before they can lobby their former co-workers. By that time, much of their personal influence will have abated.
Finally, the Accountability Act stops candidates from using supporters’ supposed “independent expenditures” as shadowy arms of their campaign. By updating regulations separating independent expenditures and candidate campaigns, the act ensures that the two are truly independent.
2. Lifting the curtain on Big Money
When political ads disclose that they are paid for by the “We Love Babies PAC” or “Friends of Washington PAC,” they don’t tell voters who specifically is behind the curtain. I-1464 would require that ads disclose the top five actual people or entities, not just PACs, funding the ad.
The Accountability Act would also bring Washington’s political transparency into the modern era by requiring the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) to make all reports submitted by campaigns, lobbyists, and government agencies available and searchable on its website.
3. Enforcing campaign laws
To hold candidates and campaigns accountable, the Accountability Act would increase monetary fines for ethics violations, make individuals personally liable for violations, and prohibit violators from using campaign funds to pay fines. The act would also empower regular citizens to report violations on an anonymous hotline and adequately funds the PDC’s long-starved enforcement arm.
4. Amplifying the voices of everyday Washingtonians
Democracy isn’t really of, by, and for the people unless a) all the voters without fat checkbooks can get their voices heard and b) regular people—those without rolodexes of rich friends and corporate connections—can run for and win office. That’s where “Democracy Credits” come in—a system by which each Washington voter would receive three $50 electronic coupons to support the campaigns of up to three eligible candidates for state legislature. Democracy Credits are similar to a successful tax refund program in Minnesota and to Seattle’s program of Democracy Vouchers, enacted in late 2015 and scheduled to launch in January 2017.
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With these Democracy Credits, each voter—rich or poor—would be worth as much as $150 to a candidate. This way, the Accountability Act would make every eligible voter in Washington a potential donor, in turn incentivizing candidates to seek out and engage with the concerns of more of their constituents.
Second, Democracy Credits would create a path for ordinary people to run for public office. Friends, neighbors, and colleagues who could not afford to write a check for $150 could contribute $150 in Democracy Credits, empowering diverse candidates to run competitive campaigns.
Some 32 jurisdictions in the United States, including 13 states, already strengthen the voices of everyday people through small-donor public campaign funding systems. Initiative 1464 would let Washington join this club.
The revolution starts in Cascadia
Big money has been drowning out everyday people’s voices in American politics for some time, leaving Americans fed up but unsure how to make themselves heard. Last spring, Sightline wrote that the Honest Elections Seattle initiative could “start changing politics across Cascadia and beyond,” and this year, Portland is proving out that statement.
The Washington Government Accountability Act is the biggest, boldest democracy reform measure likely to reach ballots anywhere in North America in 2016. It could start a ripple that grows into a tidal wave of public empowerment and confidence, encouraging other states to take equally bold steps to restore balance to our democratic system.
Next time: more on the details.