Running for re-election, Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien knows firsthand that the campaign chase for donors is often at odds with the hunt for votes. “Most candidates spend about 10-15 hours a week on the phone dialing for dollars,” he estimates. “You start by looking up the people who can write the big checks. Often they aren’t even in your district and can’t even vote for you but they have the capacity to finance your election.” In the 2013 election two-thirds of all of the money raised by Seattle candidates came from just 0.3 percent of the city’s residents, according to a report by the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank. This makes for heavy competition as dozens of candidates try to appeal to a very narrow slice of the electorate. “Of course everyone else is calling those same people so you’re fighting with other candidates whether they’re in your race or not, to convince the donors that you’re their guy and they should write you a check,” O’Brien said.
On Nov. 3, Seattle voters have an opportunity to radically change how candidates raise money. Ballot initiative I-122, if passed, would create a public financing model in which every Seattle resident would receive vouchers worth $100 to give to the candidate(s) of their choice. The initiative’s backers say the measure would bring more diversity to the city’s pool of candidates, allowing those without access to big-money donors to compete. And by turning registered voters into sought-after donors, proponents say candidates will spend more time listening to the voices and concerns of ordinary citizens.
Most campaign financing programs work by giving candidates access to a pool of public funds. Many encourage candidates to raise small-donor donations by matching those amounts with public funds. Seattle’s proposal is the first of its kind to give that public money directly to voters. “When you do a matching funds program voters feel like they don’t have a choice over who gets that money,” said Heather Weiner, campaign director for Honest Elections Seattle, the group behind the initiative. “Here, the voters get that public money in their hands and can sign it over to a candidate.”