This article first appeared in the Seattle Times (June 14, 2013).
SEATTLE voters should have the opportunity to decide whether they want to contribute a few dollars every year to finance City Council campaigns.
In other places like Maine, New York City and San Francisco, matching funds have leveled the playing field for challengers against well-monied incumbents. A wider array of candidates run for office and elevate civic debates based on ideas, rather than the special interests of campaign donors.
The electorate might get a crowded field and more losers, but that contributes to a robust democracy.
City Council members are considering a plan to allow candidates to opt in to a 6-to-1 matching program for campaign funds.
A candidate’s spending, including donations and matching funds, would be capped at $140,000 for the primary and at $245,000 for the primary and general elections combined. The average cost of a successful City Council campaign is $243,000.
To qualify for a maximum of $105,000 in matching funds for a primary and an additional $105,000 for a general election, candidates would have to meet the threshold of 600 contributions from Seattle residents of at least $10 each.
That’s a test for would-be public servants to prove their intentions are real.
Council members Jean Godden, Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien support efforts to get this issue before voters in the form of a six-year property-tax levy. They expect to raise about $1.5 million per year starting in 2015, by collecting about $5.76 annually from the owner of a $350,000 house.
As proposed, funds would pay only for nonpartisan City Council races. Campaign spending by third-party groups would not be matched. It may take several election cycles to measure the program’s effectiveness.
Candidates who choose to run without public financing can continue to do so, just as citizens are free to donate to any cause or politician they believe in.
Should voters approve the levy, city leaders must protect taxpayer dollars and be vigilant of possible corruption.
The council’s committee of the whole, comprising all nine members, is expected Monday to move this proposal along. The council should place this measure on the November ballot.