The Seattle City Council is considering legislation to limit the actual and perceived influence of money in elections for City office.
The bill (CB 117548) would focus primarily on two avenues of campaign fundraising. It would limit the campaign fundraising window for those vying for elected office, and restrict the rollover of surplus funds from one campaign to the next.
Those running for office could raise money only between Jan. 1 and April 30 of an election year. Any surplus in campaign funds would be returned to donors or donated to the city or a nonprofit organization.
As of now, candidates usually use surplus funds to kick-start their next election campaign. Under the bill, all candidates would start the election cycle at zero dollars.
Originally a section of the Occupy Resolution, a council response to economic justice issues raised by activists with Occupy Seattle, the bill was introduced by Councilmember Mike O’Brien in February and is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Nick Licata, Bruce Harrell, Tim Burgess and Sally Bagshaw.
It was developed after staff members in Councilmember O’Brien’s office found surprising patterns in campaign fundraising they believed should be addressed.
For example, although Seattle limits individual campaign contributions to $700, people are now giving more money. The average contribution size has almost tripled in the past 10 years.
“The trends were alarming to us,” said Josh Fogt, legislative aide to Councilmember O’Brien.
Fogt said people are also donating larger sums of money. Any given campaign’s reliance on donations of more than $100 has doubled during the past 10 years.
But the most astonishing trend, Fogt said, was that the piles of cash carried over from one election to the next have increased dramatically. Between 2001 and 2011 the total amount of money candidates “rolled over” to the next election increased tenfold, jumping from $35,000 to $371,000, he said.
“There is a real public perception problem with city government,” Fogt said. “We do everything we can to build trust and show we are not influenced by money, but people think we are. Some folks say, ‘We don’t have corruption, so why change it?’ but the perception [is important].”
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen is among those leaning toward the status quo. In an Aug. 15 government performance and finance committee meeting, he expressed his concern over the necessity of the legislation.
“Please describe what you are trying to achieve,” he said to Councilmember O’Brien and the co-sponsors. “Are you saying that corruption exists today among city-elected officials or donors?”
O’Brien responded, “Absolutely not.”
But the legislation would help with the public’s perception of government and any question of future corruption, O’Brien said.
During the meeting, the issue debated most among councilmembers was whether the new legislation would give an unfair advantage to incumbents, who enter the race with some name recognition. When Jan. 1 rolls around and candidates can start raising money, incumbents would be better known, and presumably better off, than their challenger counterparts, who might need the extra time to raise the money to get their name out.
Fogt said although this concern makes sense in theory, research doesn’t support it. He said data provided by the city’s ethics and elections commission showed incumbents were actually more likely than challengers to start fundraising prior to Jan. 1.
John King, president of Washington Public Campaigns, said WPC supports the legislation and testified in favor of it during a recent meeting.
He explained that in the state legislature, elected officials are not allowed to raise funds for election during the legislative session. City officials, by contrast, work on legislation year-round, so this restriction could not apply, but he sees the proposed bill as a good alternative.
“Frankly, we seemed to have quite a favorable reception from the committee when we testified there, so we are very hopeful the council will pass it,” he said. “It’s our feeling that it is tough enough that money is speech, and even worse when the message is garbled.”
The legislation will be discussed at the next government performance and finance committee meeting on Wed., Sept. 5, after the council has returned from its recess. It is unclear when the council will vote on the measure.