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Councilmember Mike O'Brien
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Mike O'Brien
Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission

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Elections Reforms

In August 2012, Councilmember O'Brien introduced Council Bill 117548, which proposes two reforms to our local elections system to limit the actual and perceived influence of campaign contributions in city government. The two provisions would:

  1. Limit the Campaign Fundraising Window: The first provision would limit the time period that candidates seeking local office can solicit or accept campaign contributions. The new fundraising window would run from January 1 of the election year to April 30 of the following year (candidates currently have several months after an election to retire debt and close up their books). The intent is to limit the actual or perceived influence of campaign contributions on elected officials, so that we reduce the amount of time that elected officials can solicit donations and make policy at the same time. This proposal would be a safeguard against corruption and ensure that elected officials are focused on representing you, not working for re-election.
  2. Restrict the Rollover of Surplus Funds: The second provision would prohibit the rollover of surplus funds for future races. The law would require candidates to dispose of all surplus funds at the end of the fundraising window (April 30 of the year following their election) by returning contributions to donors or donating the funds to the City or a non-profit. This provision would ensure that donor intent behind contributions is being honored (this candidate, this race) and reduce the perception of corruption by minimize fundraising in uncompetitive races.

The legislation was passed out of committee (6-2) on September 19, 2012. The fundraising window was amended to begin on January 1 two years prior to an election. The amended version will be in front of the Full Council on October 15, 2012.



Concern about the negative influence of money in politics is growing across our country. Total contributions to federal candidates in the last presidential election cycle, 2008, exceeded $5 billion, the highest ever. That amount could be higher this year.

Locally, Seattle's 2011 Election Report showed average contribution sizes reached an all time high ($221), the number of small contributions (< $100) fell to an all-time low (32%) and roll-overs and unexpended funds reached a new high. During this cycle, the Council passed Resolution 31337 outlining several issues for study, including how local elections are financed.

Two trends have emerged as key issues that could influence the role of money in local elections – restricting the fundraising window and rollover funds. Here's what we found:


Incumbents have three years prior to an election year in which they can both raise money and make policy. This chart shows a concerning trend of an increase in this off-year fundraising by incumbents over the past ten years. Data from the past ten years suggests that rarely does a challenger enter a race prior to January 1 of the election year.


A recent spike in the rollover of surplus funds raises concerns about the development of campaign "war chests" that increase the influence of money in local policy making.

In response to the Council's request to review these proposals, the Ethics and Elections Commission agreed that these changes would achieve the stated goals and should be implemented.

  • What about Public Financing?
  • In 2008, the City Council adopted Resolution 31061, establishing a Campaign Public Financing Advisory Committee charged with developing a recommendation for a proposed model for publicly financing local election campaigns in Seattle. The Committee's final report recommended a model for public financing that with the downturn in the economy has not been funded or implemented. More information is available on the SEEC website.

  • What about Corporate Personhood?
  • In 2012, the Seattle City Council joined over 100 cities across the country with a formal statement opposing corporate personhood by passing Resolution 31380 asking Congress to amend the constitution to make clear the Corporations are not human beings and only human beings are endowed with Constitutional rights.

  • Have other jurisdictions adopted similar laws?
  • The State of Washington has laws governing the fundraising window for state legislators, specifically restricting fundraising during their legislative session. The City of San Diego recently adopted fundraising window provisions similar to those being proposed by the City of Seattle.

    The State of Alaska limits the rollover of surplus funds to $5,000 in municipal races. Their legislation has been upheld by the State Supreme Court in Alaska and serves as a model for other jurisdictions.


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