A couple weeks back, the Seattle City Council voted to send a new plan for campaign finance reform to the November ballot. Initiative 122 would give all Seattle voters four $25 "democracy vouchers," for a total of $100 they could donate to candidates running for city office. The initiative would also put new limits on campaign donations and lobbying.
Council Member Mike O'Brien praised it as a way to "transform how we elect people in this city."
Fifteen minutes later, political consultant Sandeep Kaushik sent out a feverish press release calling the initiative a "cockamamie" idea that will "make our elections more prone to abuse, corruption, and special interest politicking."
In the run-up to November, get ready for a lot more of that. Kaushik is working with a new group opposing the initiative. While it's still unclear who will be bankrolling that effort, the talking points so far are based on speculation. Let's look at just two of them.
1. Opponents say the $3-million-a-year levy to fund the voucher system won't be nearly enough.
About 415,000 people are registered to vote in Seattle, according to the Sightline Institute. If they all got and spent $100 in vouchers each, that would total a massive $41.5 million in public money for campaigns.
But that's not how it works. It's how much candidates spend—not the number of registered voters—that determines the cost of the program. Spending is capped. Mayoral candidates participating in the system can't spend more than $800,000. The limit for citywide council candidates is $300,000, and candidates for district council seats and city attorney are capped at $150,000. (Only half of those amounts can be spent during the primary.)
Say six people run for mayor, eight people for two citywide council seats, and four people for city attorney. And say that even though they'll also be allowed to take regular cash donations, they all reach their maximum spending limits using only vouchers. That totals about $6 million. At $3 million a year, the levy raises $6 million for every election cycle; anything left over from less competitive races rolls over to the next election.
But as the initiative backers point out, not every candidate will participate, candidates won't get all their money from vouchers, and not every registered voter will use their vouchers. Not every registered voter even votes: Only 53 percent of Seattle voters cast a ballot in the city's hotly contested 2013 general election.
Alan Durning, director of the Sightline Institute (which supports the plan and has done financial modeling for it), estimates that elections are more likely to cost around $4 million in public money. If his estimates are off, the initiative gives the city's ethics commission the ability to alter the caps or how much the vouchers are worth.
2. The opposition claims public financing will actually increase sketchy outside money in local elections.
Kaushik says he thinks the initiative, which lowers the cap on all regular campaign donations from $700 to $500, will only encourage special interests to spend their money on independent expenditures instead. Those expenditures are organized by outside groups and have no limits.
"You're not going to eliminate money from politics," Kaushik says. "You're going to push that money into those shadowy independent expenditure committees."
But the initiative includes a release valve meant to discourage shadowy independent expenditures from overwhelming a particular race. If one candidate benefits from an independent expenditure that, combined with the money they've already raised, exceeds their spending cap, their opponent can be free of his or her spending cap too. To initiative backers, that will discourage special interests from dropping a bunch of money into a race because they know their opponents will benefit from that by being able to raise more. To Kaushik, it will amount to "double dipping" because candidates can reach their spending limits with vouchers and then be freed from those limits once independent expenditures show up for their opponent.
Kaushik also claims the release valve will make the program more expensive. He argues both that Sightline is underestimating the number of candidates who will run and that all the candidates who do run will be able to reach their spending limits in vouchers alone. For a mayoral candidate to reach their spending limit in vouchers alone, he or she would have to convince 8,000 voters to hand over all four $25 vouchers, giving none to candidates in other races. Yes, voters will be more likely to donate vouchers than actual cash, but collecting all those vouchers will take a lot of doorbelling and groundwork. It's not impossible, but it won't be doable for every long-shot contender in every race.
Even if Kaushik's nightmare scenario happens, Durning says, "So what?" Candidates would still be raising big sums of money from regular people all over the city—people who may not normally be involved in the political process at all. And that's the whole point.