Monday, November 02, 2015

Tomorrow Seattle Voters Decide If They Want Honest Elections... Or Not (Maine Too)


- By Shetha Alaskar

Seattle has a history of progressivism and innovation. In 2013, we were the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage and set an example that was followed in by communities across the country. Tomorrow, November 3rd, we’ll have a chance to vote on campaign finance reform and change the way America thinks about fair elections.

Initiative 122, nicknamed Honest Elections, would institute some of the tightest campaign contribution limits and regulations in the country, target the big money interests that currently buy our elections, and empower Seattle voters through a public financing option. Almost every city council candidate, dozens of community leaders, and Representative Jim McDermott have all come together in support of I-122.

As a whole, it’s an impressive step for our city and one that the rest of the country is watching. This is particularly true of I-122’s Democracy Voucher program-- a public financing option that puts the focus on strengthening the voices of Seattle voters and promoting equity. In a recent interview with Policy Mic, Harvard professor and leading campaign finance reform expert Lawrence Lessig praised it as “the most attractive public funding system we can develop.”

The idea is simple. Seattle candidates will have the choice to forgo big money contributions in favor of the support of ordinary Seattle voters. Every voter will receive four $25 Democracy Vouchers with their ballot. They can contribute these to the qualified campaign of their choice.

In order to participate, candidates must collect a number of small donations first and agree to follow some rules. These include giving Seattle voters the chance to hear from them directly at three public debates, capping their campaign spending, limiting private contributions, and not fundraising for independent third party groups.

The outcome is a Seattle in which all voters decide elections, regardless of how much money they have or how well connected they are. That’s the vision of I-122: voters having the strongest voice in who’s elected in our city. Alan Durning, one of the original authors of I-122, wrote “the truth is that Honest Elections Seattle strengthens people power by giving candidates a way to run for office without dialing for dollars.”

For young voters, often seen as highly unengaged, this idea resonates. It’s an opportunity to vote for candidates that represent their community, not big donors. As one young voter in Green Lake wrote me, “At the heart of Honest Elections is the promise that ordinary people can not only have a voice in politics, but a strong voice that will be listened to.” She sees I-122 as key to making that shift towards fair elections and empowered voters.

In Seattle, that’s a particularly timely change. Our local elections are some of the most expensive in the country. A study of our 2013 elections found that half of the money funding campaigns came from .03 percent of the adult population-- mostly the wealthy owners of expensive waterfront properties.

After a recent scandal in which a prominent developer was accused of attempting to bribe and intimidate a candidate for Seattle City Council, the problem appears clear and close to home.

Tomorrow, Seattle voters can pass the solution. We can vote for a system that empowers our communities to choose elected leaders based on merit, not on the size of their budget. We can set another example for the rest of the country.

UPDATE: Maine Too

In Maine, voters will cast ballots to update the landmark Clean Elections law first passed in 1996 but screwed up by court decisions and political shenanigans. The Clean Elections system allows qualified candidates to receive a set amount of public funds if they raise a large number of small donations and take no large checks. Question 1 also increases transparency and levies new fines on lawbreakers. The campaign is spearheaded by Mainers for Accountable Elections. The initiative is opposed by Tea Party Governor Paul LePage who called it "the biggest scam on Maine people, this is truly, truly about getting the wealthy, wealthier and the poor people, dumb-- keep them dumb-- dumb them down. This is a scam. " Meanwhile Independent Senator Angus King is backing the bill and took to the pages of the Portland Press Herald to explain why:
It will toughen fines and penalties for those who break Maine’s election laws so they are truly held accountable to the people. And it will encourage strict campaign spending and contribution limits by strengthening the state’s landmark Clean Elections system so that candidates throughout Maine can run for office without being reliant on special interests and big money donors.

I’ve watched as Maine’s Clean Elections system has transformed the state’s Legislature and opened the door for everyday people like plumbers, teachers, carpenters and firefighters to be able to run for office and compete against deep-pocketed or well-connected opponents.

By putting a focus on low-dollar donations and taking special interest money out of the equation, Clean Elections makes a $5 donor become a political player in our system and ensure that politicians answer to the people. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, Greens and independents have been such strong supporters of the system.

Unfortunately, because of misguided changes at the state and federal level in recent years, our Clean Elections system has been severely weakened. Question 1 gives us an opportunity to make it strong once again.

By passing Question 1, we can halt the unprecedented shift in campaign financing and return control of our elections to the hands of the people, restoring faith in our political system and protecting the fundamental principle of having a government that is of, by and for the people.

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