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Let's even the playing field with publicly financed elections

Steve Carter
Cameron Browne Photography

Working for a vital democracy

By Steven Carter, AARP Oregon volunteer

Transparency.  Accountability.   A level playing field.   Higher voter participation.

Sound like a good formula for running public elections?   Well, that’s what’s on the table for discussion and possible enactment this fall in Portland.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz is proposing a return to publicly financed elections in Portland, and AARP Oregon is front and center in the process, weighing in.    We haven’t signed on to a specific proposal – the details are still being worked out.   But the principles being discussed dovetail nicely with AARP’s policies on government integrity and civic participation.   And we want to ensure that the final plan reflects our values.

Publicly financed elections offer candidates who are not wealthy a chance to run and win office, and make the small contributions of their backers grow larger by adding public money to their donations.   The idea is not new – it’s been in place in New York City for three decades.    Maine, Connecticut and Arizona are among 11 states with some form of publicly financed elections.  More and more local governments are getting behind the idea – the latest is Seattle.

It’s not even new in Portland – the city tried publicly financed elections for five years in the early 2000s.   During the recession, voters by a razor-thin margin decided not to renew the program in 2010.

Since then, we’ve seen how big money has flooded elections in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which said the First Amendment precludes any spending limits on corporations or other special interests in political campaigns, as long as they are independent of the candidate.

“Trust in government is extremely low,” says the AARP Policy Book on government integrity and civic engagement.  “The public perceives government as less responsive to its concerns than to those of special interests.“

The Policy Book goes on to say, “Greater reliance on public campaign financing is warranted to prevent the electoral process from being skewed toward the concerns of major contributors rather than those of the larger public.”

That’s the core idea behind the Fritz proposal – to make the voices of ordinary people in Portland as loud as those of the big contributors – and to increase the diversity of candidates for mayor, the city council and the city auditor’s post.   At the same time, the plan aims to increase the interest and participation of a wider spectrum of Portland residents in the political process by magnifying the power of their political donations.

The proposal under discussion would increase the accountability of all candidates for office in Portland government by raising the penalties for campaign spending violations and increasing the frequency of contribution and spending reports candidates must submit.

Those goals could have come straight out of AARP’s public policy guidelines.  We want greater transparency in political contributions so voters know exactly who is backing each candidate.

Participation in the publicly financed election program would be voluntary – a candidate could decide to raise his or her own campaign funds or use their own money to run for office.  But those who decide to run under the program could take contributions only from individual donors living in the city –not corporations, unions or other organizations.   They would be strictly limited in how much they could collect from any one donor -- $250 is the current amount being discussed.

Contributions of up to a certain amount – say $50, would be matched by a multiple of that figure from a public fund – say four times, or five times.  In that way, small donors could amplify their voice and candidates without a lot of personal resources or big donors could mount a credible campaign.

The program has been very successful in New York City – it has increased the diversity of candidates for public office and also greatly increased the number of people who have donated to political campaigns and geographic diversity of where they live.   That is great boon to increasing civic engagement – one of AARP’s key policy goals for good government.

Finally, there would be some sort of limit in the amount of public money that could be spent on the program – say $1 million per year, or a tiny portion of the $4.3 billion Portland city budget. Candidates who qualify early for the program would have the best chance of securing public funds.

At present, there isn’t much diversity in elective government in Portland.  There are no minorities on the council, and there have been only two in the past.   All five commissioners live in just one quadrant of Portland.

AARP Oregon Government Relations Director Jon Bartholomew and I have been actively involved in the discussion about bringing back publicly financed elections.  Among the many other groups participating are Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Oregon and the Portland chapter of the NAACP.

AARP Oregon is at the table because we believe that a healthy, vital democracy depends on fair, transparent elections, trust in government and widespread participation in the political process.   We’ll continue to promote these ideals as we participate in the discussions.

Learn More

Does the idea of publicly funded elections in Portland sound interesting?  Find out more about Commissioner Amanda Fritz’ proposal at a public meeting she is hosting in September.

The details:

Thursday, September 8
7 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Matt Dishman Community Center
77 NE Knott St., Portland 97212

[Photo: Cameron Browne]






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