Lorena González is thinking about how to block Super PACs from spending unlimited amounts of money in Seattles elections.
Lorena González is thinking about how to block Super PACs from spending unlimited amounts of money in Seattle's elections. Lester Black

Council Member Lorena González introduced a significant change to her legislative attempt to end Super PACs in Seattle elections, proposing an amendment Thursday morning that would dramatically reduce the amount of money grassroots groups could funnel into Seattle elections under her proposed law.

Spending by Super PACs—which are political action committees that are not affiliated with a single candidate—has exploded in Seattle’s elections in the last decade, going from zero dollars in 2011 to over $4 million in this last November’s election. Super PACs, like the one Amazon donated $1.5 million to during this past election, currently face no donation limits while candidates have a $500-per-person donation cap.

González wants to end this spending spree by passing what she calls the Clean Campaigns Act. The proposed law limits Super PACs to only accepting $5,000 per-person, per-year, effectively cutting out millions of dollars from flowing into Seattle's elections.

González's proposal currently allows a loophole around this $5,000 donation limit for groups she is calling Limited Contributor Committees (LCCs). The LCC structure is designed to allow large groups of donors to give money to independent PACs without facing the same burden as Super PACs. In exchange for agreeing to accept smaller donations—LCCs can only take $500 per donor, per year, while other independent PACs can take up to $5,000—the LCCs are free to pool their money together with unlimited donations to other LCCs. The measure was designed to allow “grassroots” organizers, which in Seattle politics frequently means labor unions, the ability to raise and spent large sums of money from small donors.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission raised concerns about the LCC idea when the legislation was brought before them in September, warning that González might be making the legislation harder to defend in court. The Stranger has also been sounding the alarm that the LCC system, as it was designed, was creating an exploitable loophole for ultra-wealthy people to spend millions of dollars in Seattle’s elections.

González originally wanted LCCs to be able to accept up to $500-per-person and donate unlimited amounts of money between each other. That creates an exploitable loophole, as we described in a post earlier this week:

Consider this scenario: 150 executives decide they want to spend big in local elections, so they set up 100 separate LCCs. The executives then max out their LCC donations to each of these 100 groups. Since the maximum contribution for an individual to an LCC is $500, that would work out to a total of $50,000 being given, per donor, to the overall collection of 100 LCCs.

Those 100 LCCs would then collectively have $7.5 million from 150 wealthy people, and once that money was pooled—a legal maneuver under González's proposal—those 150 wealthy people would have found a way to spend $7.5 million in Seattle’s elections.

But now that loophole might be seriously curtailed. Under González’s new amendment, which has yet to receive a vote, LCCs would only be able to accept up to $100 per donor, and LCCs can only donate up to $10,000, per year, to any other independent expenditure committee.

González said Thursday morning that her amendment was intended to strengthen the legislation’s ability to fight the “appearance of corruption” in Seattle’s elections.

“I think this modification recognizes that even in the Limited Contributor Committee context, it’s still important for us to recognize that there is the potential for too much money, or big money, to get into that particular environment as well," González said.

These proposed new regulations, which are collectively called the Clean Campaigns Act, will only apply to Seattle’s elections, but González is hoping these laws will spread across the country and help overturn the current American campaign finance system. That makes the legislation a big target for a court challenge. Super PACs are the biggest source of money in Seattle politics (Super PACs accounted for 55 percent of all election spending in 2019’s Seattle City Council races) and politicians across the country, from President Donald Trump to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have bankrolled their political careers with Super PACs. The ultra-wealthy are not going to let their backchannel into politics close without a fight.

The impending court challenge makes González's reference to the “appearance of corruption” no accident. The Supreme Court has routinely upheld election contributions limits when they are sufficiently tailored to limit both literal election corruption but also the “appearance of corruption” in elections. This is why it’s illegal for wealthy donors to give a million-dollar donation directly to a candidate. Even if that donation doesn’t directly create corruption, it creates the appearances of corruption in elections, which the Supreme Court has said is sufficient to make massive direct donations illegal.

If the Clean Campaigns Act limits Super PAC donations on the basis of blocking the appearance of corruption, but at the same time allows LCCs to create the appearance of corruption by funneling millions of dollars into elections from small groups of donors, that could undercut the legal defense of these regulations.

This latest amendment, which will get a vote when the council reconvenes in the new year, might make the Cleans Campaign Act stronger in possible future court battles.