News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
carterdayne/Getty Images

In Albuquerque, a city known for its annual balloon festival, voters rejected the trial ballon for publicly funded donation vouchers.

Two wins and a loss for those who would remake campaign finance rules

Voters in two Western cities have delivered a pair of small victories and one substantial loss to advocates for reducing the importance of big money in elections.

Albuquerque narrowly rejected a ballot measure Tuesday to start a system of publicly funded donation vouchers for supporting municipal candidates. The idea has been hailed as a breakthrough for promoting a broader base of interest in elections while diluting the power of corporate cash over campaigns, while critics say it's a totally wrong way to spend taxpayer money.

The voters of New Mexico's biggest city did, however, decide to expand an existing public financing system for mayoral candidates willing to limit their own spending. And the people of San Francisco voted to limit contributions to local candidates and require the people who buy advertising in city elections to disclose their identities.

Albuquerque's "democracy dollars" proposal was the marquee campaign finance idea on the ballot in this off-year election, and it garnered 49 percent support — falling short by 2,039 votes.

"Every city has different political and financial factors that go into whether or not to support a proposition," said Austin Graham of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for a range of campaign finance changes and files lawsuits against alleged abusers of the system. "I know there's a lot of interest in voucher systems for local and state offices so I don't think this loss will deflate the broader movement."

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

Had it been adopted, the city would have mailed registered voters $25 vouchers. Those vouchers could only have been donated to mayoral or city council candidates who use the city's existing public financing program, which requires them to limit their campaign spending and to collect at least some money as small donations.

The minor public financing win, adopted with 58 percent support, raises from $1 to $1.75 the per-voter subsidies that may be claimed by mayoral candidates.

Graham attributed the loss for the more ambitious proposal to the opponents' argument that the vouchers would disproportionately benefit incumbents. But that has not proved the case in Seattle, the first and only city with such a system, where more newcomers have entered local races since the program was first put to work two years ago.

Seattle experienced its own test of the vouchers this week. Using political action committees, Amazon, labor unions and other businesses spent almost $4 million — a huge amount by local standards — to sway the local elections against candidates who had backed a business tax increase. While one of the seven city council races remained too close to call Wednesday, the six declared winners all accepted vouchers and the accompanying spending limits.

Down the coast in San Francisco, there was overwhelming support for imposing limits on campaign contributions and increasing transparency for political advertisements in local elections.

That ballot initiative, passed with 77 percent, will ban limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships, such as law firms, from contributing to mayoral and council candidates. The measure also blocks contributions from people with a financial stake in city zoning, planning or other land-use matters. And from now on all printed, audio or video advertising must include the names (and contribution amounts above $5,000) for the donors behind the spots.

The proposal was not galvanizing and neither were a handful of ballot measures or Mayor London Breed's run for reelection. Turnout was 22 percent, the lowest the city has seen in a decade.

© Issue One. All rights reserved.