On November 3, the Portland City Council will hold a hearing on Open and Accountable Elections Portland, a proposal to tighten campaign transparency laws and introduce a public match funding option for local elections. Portlanders may be wondering why the Council is considering this proposal and what exactly it will do. This article explains the myriad benefits of the program, and the next article explains its mechanics.
Why does Portland need Open and Accountable Elections?
A few wealthy donors dominate Portland’s elections. In 2012, just 600 big donors accounted for nearly 60 percent of all money given to city campaigns. This year, Ted Wheeler raised $470,000 from just 400 wealthy individuals to power his winning mayoral campaign. Big checks from big donors winnow the field of candidates—often only those with connections to big donors dare run. And the need to collect big checks narrows candidates’ focus on the campaign trail—candidates must spend time courting these big donors, leaving less time to talk with more ordinary Portlanders.
Big donors also squeeze regular people out of participating in local campaigns. If a candidate can get $10,000 by either having one lunch with a big donor downtown or walking through East Portland neighborhoods convincing 1,000 people to contribute $10 each, then East Portlanders aren’t going to see many candidates knocking on their doors. Lack of attention from candidates can lead regular people to feel less involved in the city’s civic life overall.
In part as a result of this unbalanced system, Portland’s elected leaders tend to be white, male, and from central and West Portland. Only two people of color have ever served on city council, even though nearly one-third of Portlanders are people of color. (The census counts 28 percent of Portland as of color, but has a history of undercounting people of color). More than half of Portlanders are female, yet just seven women have been elected to the City Council in over 160 years. And 60 percent of the Rose City’s population lives east of 47th Ave, but only two commissioners have come from these neighborhoods.
Other cities faced similar challenges and enacted citizen campaign finance programs to keep control of elections in the hands of voters, not big money. Portland has the opportunity to do the same. Here are a few ways that Open and Accountable Elections Portland would empower everyday people to participate in the democratic process.
1. Strengthen the voices of small donors
In Portland’s 2012 elections, 6,000 small donors (giving $250 or less) collectively contributed $570,000 to local campaigns but got drowned out by just 600 big donors (giving $1,000 or more) collectively contributing $1.7 million—nearly three times as much. Open and Accountable Elections Portland would restore balance by strengthening the voices of thousands of small donors. With a 6-to-1 match for contributions of $50 or less, those 6,000 regular donors from 2012 would have been able to contribute over $2 million to local campaigns, making them collectively as important as the 600 wealthy donors. The public match program would create a path for candidates to run a successful campaign by depending on small donations from regular people, rather than seeking mega-checks from wealthy donors and corporations.
New York City proves that matching-grant citizen finance programs empower candidates to rely on small donors to fund successful campaigns. Mayor (and former Hillary Clinton campaign manager) Bill de Blasio explains that because a public match is available for New York City Council candidates, “you can make small donors the centerpiece of a campaign.” You “don’t need to rely on big money donors.” By boosting the role of small donors in Portland elections, the city will build a stronger democracy where all voices and ideas are heard.
2. Empower regular people to become donors
When matching funds are available, candidates go to neighborhoods they would usually bypass, knock on doors they would otherwise ignore, and engage people who are usually overlooked in politics. As a result, New York City found that twice as many people in three times as many neighborhoods contribute to local candidates. In poor and predominantly African-American neighborhoods, up to twenty-four times as many people became donors once citizen financing was in place.
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People who have historically been less powerful in the political process—such as African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and women—find they have a role when their donations are matched. Political donor lists are usually dominated by business moguls, but the list of donors when citizen financing is available includes teachers and police officers, artists and administrative assistants, cab and bus drivers, nurses and clergy.
3. Allow regular people to become candidates
In the current privately financed system, people without connections to the big money donor network have little chance of raising enough money to run for office. But citizen financing changes the calculus of who can run. As a Public Advocate in New York explained: A “millionaire has always been able to run for office. But now a local librarian, teacher, or labor leader, who has a network of friends, can run knowing that they will have the minimal amount of money to say who they are and what they believe.”
Steven Banks, a community lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, attracted more contributors than anyone else in his race. He said the “match creates a level playing field for a community advocate candidate because matching funds are available to multiply the impact of small contributions raised through grassroots fundraising.”
4. Encourage more women and more people of color to run for office
Although the evidence is still inconclusive, some experience suggests that more women and more people of color run for office when citizen finance programs are available. For example, New York continued adding people of color to its city council after citizen financing was made available until a majority of New York City Councilors were people of color in 2009. Councilmember Jumaane Williams, a person of color who defeated a white incumbent in 2009, said the citizen finance system made his victory possible:
My opponents had access to big money in a way that I do not, but the matching fund helped me keep up with them in fundraising. The availability of matching funds absolutely makes it easier for someone like me to run for office in New York, particularly given that I was challenging an incumbent. Without matching funds, winning would have been more difficult if not impossible.
In Arizona the number of people of color running for offices covered by public financing jumped from 13 in 2000 to 37 in 2006. The number of women running went from 25 in 2002 to 34 in 2006.
Open and Accountable Elections Portland can restore balance to local elections and ensure that our democracy is of, by, and for the people.
In Connecticut, citizen financing introduced in 2008 helped elect a legislature that is more representative of the state’s demographics. For example, Latinos, who make up 8 percent of Connecticut voters, won more than 6 percent of state legislative seats in 2012. Women won 32 percent of legislative seats, an increase from 28 percent before citizen financing was available. The Secretary of State commented: “Public financing definitely made the legislature more diverse. There are more people of color, more young people, more women, and more young women.”
5. Set a people-powered agenda
Some evidence (albeit mostly anecdotal) suggests that citizen financing may free legislators to pursue policies everyday people support that electeds financed by big money might nonetheless avoid. Connecticut’s experience suggests that citizen financing helps align elected officials’ priorities with people’s priorities. After citizen finance began operating, Connecticut’s legislature passed mandatory paid sick days, increased the minimum wage, adopted an Earned Income Tax Credit, passed in-state tuition for undocumented students, and reversed a nearly 30-year trend that gave bottle deposits to distributors and instead sent the money to public programs.
Everyone’s voice should be heard in city governance. Citizen financing is a proven way to empower candidates to rely on small donors to run a successful campaign, opening the political process to teachers, cab drivers, and artists. By unshackling candidates from big money donors, public finance will give candidates a path to office that runs through every neighborhood in the city. And regular people, not just those connected to the wealthy donor class, would have a chance to run for office and win. Open and Accountable Elections Portland can restore balance to local elections and ensure that our democracy is of, by, and for the people.