The wave of big money that has crashed over US politics since Citizens United has not spared Portland, Oregon, Cascadia’s third largest city. Just 600 big donors (including individuals, business entities, labor organizations, and PACs) accounted for nearly 60 percent of all money given to city campaigns in the last completed election cycle.
In 2012, Portland voters elected two city commissioners and a new mayor. Mayoral candidates raised more than $1 million dollars each, and even though one winning council candidate won in the primary and the other was an incumbent, their campaign costs averaged nearly $300,000 each.
That’s a lot of money. How and from whom did candidates raise that money? With whom did local candidates spend their days and evenings on the phone and at events? Who had the future electeds’ ears as they were developing their priorities for the city?
Big donors and out-of-towners drown out regular Portlanders’ voices
Individuals and organizations who could write checks for $1,000, $5,000, or $10,000 played an outsized role in candidates’ campaigns compared with regular people who could only spare $10, $50, or $100. At least 6,000 individuals contributed checks of $250 or less, for a total of $570,000 in donations. Their voices were overwhelmed by just 600 big donors—both individuals and organizations—who wrote checks for $1,000 or more, jointly contributing a whopping $1.7 million to local campaigns.
Similarly, out-of-town interests have outsized sway over local elections. One thousand Portland residents writing checks for $100 to $200 contributed $92,000 between them. But that figure was swamped by the $230,000 that only 20 out-of-town donors gave to Portland campaigns.
Imbalance between regular Portlanders and big donors throws lots of things out of balance. It can dictate who is able to run for local office. It eats away at civic engagement as people feel alienated from the system. And with such a big thumb on the city scale, big donors can tilt Stumptown policies their way.
It doesn’t have to be this way
This lopsidedness between regular people and big donors is not unique to the Rose City. But other cities and states have pioneered ways to restore balance, to remove barriers to running for office, and to give everyone a voice in local democracy.
For decades, New York City has run a highly successful public match system to amplify the voices of small donors. And it works. Without the match, candidates for state assembly received contributions from less than one-third of New York neighborhoods. But under the public match system, city council candidates engage with and win contributions from people in fully 90 percent of their city’s neighborhoods.
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And last November, Portland’s northern neighbors overwhelmingly approved the Honest Elections Seattle initiative. Starting in 2017, Seattle will rebalance local elections by giving every voter $100 worth of Democracy Vouchers they can use to fund their favorite candidates for city office.
While the match and vouchers differ in their details, they both work to even the playing field, letting candidates from any neighborhood run for office and encouraging people from every neighborhood to participate in the civic process, regardless of their income.
The Portland opportunity
Portland, true to its progressive values, is about to propose its own public match system, innovating smart, local solutions that allow more people to run, more people to support their favorite candidates, and more voices to be heard in Rose City. Under the soon-to-be-announced “Accountable Elections Portland” ordinance, people making small donations to their favored candidates for city office would receive a public match. Candidates who opt into the program would refuse to accept donations of more than $250 and instead receive this public match to amplify the voices of their small donors.
If such a program had been in place in Portland in 2012, the fundraising scales would have tipped away from wealthy donors and towards ordinary people. Six thousand Portlanders could have out-contributed the 600 biggest donors. Put another way, a campaign powered by Portland residents of modest means would have handily out-raised a campaign backed exclusively by wealthy donors.
Accountable Elections Portland would empower ordinary people over wealthy donors and could fundamentally change the way campaigns are run in Rose City. It would mean that candidates would seek out their constituents—and not just the elite 600 donors they’re used to receiving big checks from but a much broader swath of Portland’s population, across diverse backgrounds and income levels. And it would mean that more Portlanders could run for office, even if they don’t have a rolodex of wealthy friends or family to tap for campaign funds.
At its heart, Accountable Elections Portland means more ordinary Portlanders having a stronger voice in the choices that shape the city and its future. That’s the opportunity here. And it’s now up to Portland to seize it.