There's an initiative on your ballot that you simply must vote for: It's called Honest Elections (Initiative 122), and it does exactly what's in the name: makes elections more democratic. But even if it passes, there will be much more work to do.
It turns out that when Triad developer Brett Allen recently pressured city council candidate Jon Grant—offering to make an independent expenditure (IE) committee that would pour $200,000 into advocacy against him "go away," but only if Grant got rid of a Tenants Union lawsuit against the company—he was protected by an apparent loophole in local, state, and federal elections laws.
Initiative 122 will do nothing to close that loophole, so it's up to the city council to fix the problem.
Yesterday, Council Member Nick Licata called for a Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission investigation into the loophole, in order to inform legislation designed to close it. "Even an appearance of potential corruption deeply damages our civic life," he said. Wayne Barnett, the director of the commission, said its commissioners will look into Licata's request.
So, how exactly does the loophole work?
Technically, Grant was only pressured by the threat of $200,000 being put into an IE against him. After the private threat was exposed publicly, that money never materialized and the IE fizzled out. "Current Seattle election law does not appear to address potential independent expenditures," Licata said, "and any potential quid pro quo that could result from those potential expenditures not being made." He says such activities represent "unethical coercion at best, extortion at worst."
There's another big problem highlighted by this affair.
The IEs can't talk to the campaigns they support, and campaigns are explicitly prohibited from coordinating with IEs that support them. But IEs can talk to—and threaten, apparently—the campaigns they want to defeat. There don't appear to be any rules about IEs, on their own, contacting opposing campaigns to blackmail or pressure them with the prospect of sinking a mountain of cash into political advertisements against them.
In the Grant case, if Allen had called up Tim Burgess first and said, "Hey, let's attack Jonathan Grant using this IE," it would have been illegal. Burgess says he knew nothing about any plot to pressure Grant. But as Licata's pointing out, it's a problem that it wasn't illegal for Allen to contact the Grant campaign through former mayor Mike McGinn and say, "Any deal [to get the Tenants Union to withdraw its lawsuit] would be contingent on the 200k IE going away." Which is what he did.
There's no way to know how often either of these loopholes have been used. Sandeep Kaushik, a longtime Seattle political consultant (also, in another era, a Stranger writer), said he's never seen anything like the blackmail attempt against Grant before. "If the assumption is this is somehow common practice in Seattle politics, I'd say hell no," Kaushik said.
(Of course, it's in his interest to say this. Opponents of the Honest Elections initiative—Kaushik is one of them—take umbrage with its name because, they say, our elections are already so darn honest.)
But even Kaushik acknowledges, "It's hard to maintain the integrity of the wall that supposedly exists between IEs and candidate campaigns."
For example, Kaushik is involved in an IE called "Neighbors for Shannon Braddock"—a group that will advocate for the District 1 candidate who's running against Lisa Herbold. Kaushik said his group decided to call up a pro-Herbold IE (which has far less money that Kaushik's, incidentally) on the other side of the race. They agreed to only run positive ads for their respective candidates—not go negative against each other. Which is very, um, Seattle nice.
Hypothetically, if he'd talked about that agreement with Braddock (or any of the group's activities, for that matter), it'd be against the law. But—again, hypothetically—if they talked over the phone or coffee, without making a record of it, how would the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission ever learn that they coordinated with one another?
"If people want to be unscrupulous and break the rules, if they're smart about it, it is hard to enforce," Kaushik said of the election code. Triad's Allen was either astonishingly stupid in making a written record of his political maneuvering or part of a failed evil genius plot.
Either way, the question is: how do we fix these loopholes?
Kaushik said he's not sure. "I think Seattle has some of the toughest transparency and accountability rules of any city in the country," he said. "And our elections tend to be very clean. That's why this was so surprising to me. But things do happen from time to time."
And the use of IEs—giant pools of cash—are only growing, as Licata points out:
Working Washington has been tracking the use of these contributions in this year's election over at RunForTheMoney.org. It high time the city exert some oversight over them.
Until recently, independent expenditures were not a prominent feature of Seattle elections: from 1999 to 2007, independent expenditures in all Seattle election races averaged less than $100,000 per election, total. In 2013, by contrast, we saw $570,658 spent, mostly in the Mayor's race. The 2013 spending record has been broken in 2015 Council elections.