I’ve explained how Honest Elections Seattle works (for voters, candidates, and election officials) and that it’s fraud-repellent and cheap. This time, I just want to assure you that it’s legal, SCOTUS notwithstanding.

People question me, all the time, about the constitutionality of limiting big money in US politics, because since Citizens United, everyone on the continent seems to know that the Supreme Court has declared money a protected form of free speech. Almost everyone—left, right, and center—hates this idea and with it, the way private interests have corrupted Washington, DC: 96 percent of Americans believe that US democracy is far too influenced by big money. Unfortunately, 91 percent of Americans also think there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s where people are mistaken.

We can do a lot about it, and the Supreme Court itself has drawn a path. SCOTUS says “thou shalt not ban private money” except in narrowly defined circumstances (basically, to prevent cash-for-votes corruption), but diluting private money with public money? That’s allowed.

Diluting Private Money with Public

In exchange for public funds, SCOTUS says, legislative bodies are welcome to require candidates to abide by additional or stricter rules, including some limits that would be unconstitutional if made mandatory. For example, the court forbids the outright capping of candidates’ campaign budgets. That’s a violation of those candidates freedom of speech. But the court lets jurisdictions choose not to give public campaign funds to candidates who do not limit their spending. That doesn’t restrict anyone’s freedom, because if candidates don’t want to participate, they can raise money the regular way, dialing for dollars from rich people and making lunchtime pitches at posh downtown offices.

“By making public funding an attractive option, therefore, jurisdictions can draw candidates onto an alternative, honest-elections path to office.”
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By making public funding an attractive option, therefore, jurisdictions can draw candidates onto an alternative, honest-elections path to office. Then, before candidates can receive those funds, jurisdictions can require them to agree to honest-elections rules: no big money, no secret money, limited spending, no shady coordination with fake independent spenders, lots of public debates. That’s what Honest Elections Seattle does.

And that’s the main reason the Honest Elections Seattle Initiative is legal. It takes private money out of politics mostly by diluting it with public money.

Corruption, Transparency, Ethics

The initiative does include some mandatory provisions covering everyone, but they’re all legal too under current court rulings. They’re modeled, directly or loosely, on other cities and states’ statutes.

  • Honest Elections Seattle tightens existing contribution limits, for example, and indexes them to inflation, as some court decisions suggest. It speeds disclosure of certain campaign contributions and modernizes candidates’ reporting of their own debts, financial holdings, and investments. It bans contributions from the most common sources of graft in city government: big-time contractors (modeled on bans in Chicago, Los Angeles, New Haven and the state of Connecticut overall, plus more than a dozen other states) and those who bankroll major lobbying campaigns (just like prohibitions or restrictions in force in Austin, Los Angeles, Connecticut and a number of other states—recently joined by Arkansas). It closes the revolving door, by imposing a longer cooling-off period before former elected officials can lobby the city; California and 35 other states require cooling-off periods of at least one year. Seattle’s will be among the longest at three years. It requires paid signature gatherers on city petition drives to reveal themselves as such (just as they are required to do in Oregon and Colorado).

    “In 2015, #Seattle has a rare chance to show how much change is possible. And it’s all #SCOTUS-legal.”
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    The initiative is no legal flier. It’s the handiwork of literally a dozen attorneys—some local veterans, some constitutional lawyers from East Coast universities. These masters of the law polished and revised the initiative time and again to keep it within the bounds of federal and state law. It’s carefully erected on solid court precedents.

    Court challenges may come up, of course. That’s possible with any law, especially one as consequential as this. It will withstand them, though. And even in the unlikely event that some parts of it fall away in court—precedents do change, and judicial decisions are unpredictable—the vast bulwark of Honest Elections Seattle will remain standing. The innovation at the heart of the initiative is its game-changing Democracy Vouchers, and the voucher program is on especially solid legal footing.

    In 2015, Seattle has a rare chance to show how much change is possible. And it’s all SCOTUS-legal.

    Special thanks to Jane Harvey for research of this article.