Public Funding of Elections
Councilmembers are beginning efforts to explore a public financing system for Seattle election campaigns. If this effort moves forward, the Council will place this decision on either the primary or General Election ballot in 2013.
In December 2012, Councilmembers Clark, Licata, O'Brien and Rasmussen sent a letter to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission asking them to recommend a public financing model that meets the goals of increasing electoral competitiveness, reducing financial barriers to entry for candidates, and increasing the role and emphasis of small donors in the electoral process. We expect these recommendations in early March. The Council will evaluate the proposal this spring and if they endorse a program, will advance a ballot measure in either the primary or general election in 2013.
What is public campaign financing?
Public financing of campaigns is a system in which campaigns are funded in part with public dollars in order to increase electoral competitiveness and increase the role of small donors in the electoral process. All programs require candidates to raise funds from early supporters, which are then matched with public funds. It is an optional system in which candidates, both incumbents and challengers, can choose to participate. Municipal elections in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami currently use this system.
Considerations for campaign financing
In an effort to avoid a system where candidates only spend time talking to a smaller group of higher-dollar contributors, public financing is one way to allow candidates to broaden their campaign efforts with all voters.
Locally, Seattle's 2011 Election Report showed average campaign contributions reached an all-time high ($221), the number of small contributions (less than $100) fell to an all-time low (32 percent) and unspent campaign funds reached a new high. In addition, the average number of candidates per contested seat is trending downward, the average amount of money raised by the winning candidate has increased by 60 percent since 1995 and City incumbent re-election rate is at 84 percent since 1995. Â
In Nov. 2011, the Council passed Resolution 31337 outlining several issues for study, including how local elections are financed.
Seattle's history with public financing of campaigns
Seattle had partial public financing of election campaigns in 1979 and 1981, and from 1987-1991. In 1992, state Initiative 134 passed, prohibiting public financing. In 2008 the State legislature passed a law allowing local jurisdictions to establish programs to publicly finance campaigns, if approved by a public vote, and the funding is derived from local sources only.
The City Council responded by passing Resolution 31061, which set up a Campaign Public Financing Advisory Committee that recommended public financing of Seattle election campaigns. They recommended that the City Council place a measure on the November 2009 ballot for a public financing program, to go into effect for the 2011 election, with an estimated annual cost between $2.3 and $3.2 million. However, the Great Recession began and City revenues plummeted so the Council held off the vote indefinitely.