Voters could decide as soon as August whether or not the city should provide funding for political campaigns for city office.
The Seattle City Council is considering a ballot measure that would allow the city to provide candidates with campaign money, provided they meet certain criteria, such as signatures, to show broad community support.
Such a bill could give lesser known candidates and political newcomers a stronger voice against well-funded candidates and political incumbents.
It’s not the first time the city has tried to reform spending on campaigns. In 2008, a city task force issued recommendations to fund a public financing campaign, but it fell flat as the city lost revenue during the Great Recession.
Last year, the city council passed legislation that restricts campaign fundraising to the year before and the year of an election. Candidates must return any remaining funding after the election.
Public financing could offer new candidates enough financial support to step into the race. But, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision, which established that private spending on political causes counted as free speech, an outside group could still spend money without limits.
If a ballot measure passes, however, the city could create a funding mechanism that offers candidates a lump sum of money or matches the candidate’s fundraising efforts dollar for dollar.
The city council met with election officials from Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco to learn how similar efforts worked there.
The results were mixed. When San Francisco established public financing in 1993, the cost of elections immediately dropped, said John St. Croix, executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission. But soon after, costs rose again.
San Francisco ended up with a number of “zombie candidates,” he said, in which a candidate files, receives money but then remains unlikely to be elected. They can’t back out unless they return all of the money, much of which has already been spent. So they remain on the ballot but do not participate in the campaign.
Voters in Portland, Ore., approved public financing in 2007 but narrowly repealed it three years later. For just over half the voters, public money was just too tight to spend on political hopefuls. However, big political spending in Portland remained unpopular even after public financing was repealed.
In each community that has tried public financing of campaigns, a handful of people cheated the system through loopholes.
“You’re going to have to revisit these rules over and over again,” St. Croix said.
Councilmember Nick Licata said if passed, the initiative won’t level the playing field, because the city can’t easily restrict how much money goes into a campaign. Still, he said, it could bring new voices into the political process.
“You’ll be able to get your word out and shape the debate,” Licata said.