IN 1978, the City of Seattle enacted a groundbreaking program for public financing of city election campaigns. The program was so successful that in 1989, a public-financing program was also established by King County and approved by its voters.
Both Seattle’s and King County’s public-financing programs were abruptly terminated in 1992, casualties of a single obscure sentence in a lengthy statewide initiative.
Voters will have a chance to restore public financing for Seattle City Council elections with Seattle Proposition 1 on the Nov. 5 ballot.
If it passes, candidates who raise 600 individual contributions of $10 each from Seattle residents would qualify for the program. Each dollar raised, up to $50 per donation, would be matched by $6 in public dollars, with a maximum of $210,000.
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In 2008, the state Legislature reauthorized local government public-financing programs, with the requirement that any program receive the approval of the voters of the local government involved.
The City Council voted 8-0 to establish public campaign financing in June. In putting this proposition on the November ballot, the council has provided a golden opportunity for Seattle voters.
Those familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionare aware of the huge infusion of private money into recent elections at all levels of government, and the challenge to democracy that it presents.
Public financing of political campaigns is a straightforward way to meet that challenge, enabling candidates to wage competitive campaigns without being beholden to moneyed private interests.
Elections and the attendant campaigns are a necessary and vital feature of democratic governments. Paying for campaigns from public funds is as appropriate a governmental function as paying for printing and counting of ballots — or funding police, roads, parks and other public services.
We wouldn’t expect private interests to pay the salaries of public officials, even in financially stressed circumstances when competing needs for scarce public dollars are compelling. The same logic applies to the cost of public officials’ elections in the first place.
Indeed, one wonders how private funding of campaigns ever came about — except perhaps that it was readily available, financially convenient and vigorously defended by deep pockets with a stake in it. It’s certainly at odds with democracy. Americans are increasingly aware as elections become ever more awash in private-interest money.
The Seattle proposal is modeled largely on a highly successful New York City program in place for the past 25 years. The proposed program is entirely voluntary and requires that a candidate demonstrate a threshold of support among voters before receiving public funds.
Those who oppose public financing sometimes argue that it tends to favor incumbents. However, incumbents already have connections to private funding sources and have previously demonstrated their ability to run viable campaigns using them. It is the challengers who are usually most in need of help to wage competitive campaigns, and public financing can enable them to do so — against incumbents as well as other challengers.
The big winners are the citizens. Any convenience to candidates is far surpassed by the stimulation of a more vibrant political culture, encouraging discussion of issues in campaigns rather than dialing for dollars — while diminishing opportunities for undue influence from private interests on public policymaking.
Proposition 1 is also a remarkable bargain. Not only will it enable candidates to focus on the issues and induce officeholders to be guided solely by the public interest, it does so at a modest price.
The program is funded by a six-year property tax levy costing the owner of a home assessed at $350,000 less than $6 per year. Considering all the ways one might spend such an amount, shouldn’t a serious investment in democracy top the list?
John E. King is a retired Seattle attorney and a member of the board of directors and past president of Washington Public Campaigns, a campaign-finance reform organization.