Collecting Campaign Cash from the Homeless

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Marchers at a campaign-finance reform rally in New York City

In the special election to be decided next Tuesday between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, high-dollar donors and outside groups have pushed spending to just under $40 million, a House record.

In municipal elections now unfolding in Seattle, by contrast, housing activist Jon Grant is collecting campaign contributions from a very different source—the city’s homeless encampments. Homeless donors are helping power Grant’s campaign for city council thanks to a new public financing program that gives every Seattle voter four vouchers worth $25 each, to hand out to candidates as they see fit.

Such is the dichotomy between the federal campaign-finance system, where unrestricted money reigns supreme, and the experiments in publicly funded, citizen-powered elections that are popping up around the country in cities, states, and municipalities like Seattle, Maine, and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Inside the Beltway, Republicans who deride public financing as welfare for politicians control Capitol Hill and conservatives dominate the Supreme Court. But out in American communities, voters disgusted with special interest money are figuring out how to pay for elections with low-dollar donations from average voters.

Thirteen states now offer some form of public financing option for candidates, usually coupled with candidates’ acceptance of voluntary limits on contributions and/or spending. These statutes include Maine’s Clean Elections Law, which gives public grants to candidates who qualify by raising a minimum threshold of low-dollar contributions, and Connecticut’s Citizens Elections Program, which follows a similar model. Cities with public financing include New York, which matches low-dollar contributions on a six-to-one ratio.

The latest public financing system to get off the ground is Seattle’s, which pioneers a new approach as the first in the nation to hand out vouchers to city voters. Enacted by a 2015 ballot initiative dubbed Honest Elections Seattle with 63 percent of the vote, the voucher system is being piloted this year in three municipal races—two for at-large city council seats, and one for city attorney. The vouchers give voters a way to engage, and encourage candidates to knock on the doors of average citizens, program advocates say, instead of spending all their time with deep-pocketed donors.

“For us it really is about creating a new pathway for participation,” says Alissa Haslam, executive director of the Win/Win Network, a progressive Seattle coalition that led the initiative campaign. Haslam says organizers were “shocked” that they won the ballot initiative by such a large margin, particularly since it included a property tax increase that will generate $30 million over ten years to underwrite the vouchers.

The Seattle story is important in part because it offers a fresh approach to public financing, says Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of the Every Voice Center, which backs public financing and helped spearhead the Seattle effort. In such states as Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, candidates who opt into public financing get a lump sump. In New York City, by contrast, qualifying candidates receive public matching funds.

Seattle offers yet another approach that features “even more participation and engagement,” says Nyhart, since every city resident who receives the four $25 vouchers automatically becomes a potential donor. Voters may hand vouchers out in any combination—singly, two, or three at a time, or in a $100 batch of four to one candidate.

“I feel like there’s a little Easter egg—$100 of vouchers—in everybody’s house,” says Nyhart. “If you have three voters in the house, there are three of those Easter eggs. So there’s much more incentive for candidates to go out there and ask people for money.”

The Seattle program is also giving campaign-finance reform advocates a rare, feel-good story to tell. Instead of reminding voters yet again that the system is corrupt and politicians are beholden to special interests, voucher advocates deliberately framed their campaign in positive terms. “People are looking for something to hang their hat on that gives them hope, especially right now,” says Haslam.

Public financing is no panacea, and remains under constant conservative assault. In Minnesota, progressives just beat back an effort in the GOP-controlled legislature to end the political subsidy check-off program there. In Maine, a public financing law initially enacted by ballot initiative in 1996 was curtailed by court rulings and budget cuts, dampening participation. That forced voters to retool the law by passing yet another ballot initiative in 2015.

At the same time, new campaigns are under way in several states and municipalities—including Oregon, Howard County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.—to enact public campaign financing. Seattle’s new voucher system has already prompted inquiries from officials in several cities, according to Haslam. No one expects action any time soon, however, on the leading campaign-finance bill on Capitol Hill, authored by House Democrat John Sarbanes, of Maryland—though Sarbanes does have more than 150 co-sponsors.

But every state or local success demonstrates that alternatives can work, says Nyhart: “If you see Washington as gridlocked, you are not going to look there for inspiration. People are going to look to places where people say: ‘You know, there is another way doing this.’”

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