I-1464 modeled after Seattle law yet to be implemented

Aug 11, 2016

Earlier this week we took a look at the funding mechanism for I-1464's (Campaign Finance) proposed taxpayer financed vouchers for voters to use to make campaign contributions. This policy is modeled after a law adopted by Seattle voters in 2015. The tax financed voucher provisions of that new Seattle law, however, don't take effect until 2017 making evaluation of its impact premature. 

According to the City of Seattle, here is a list of key program dates for the new law:

"Early December 2016 – The Democracy Voucher Program will mail an informational mailer to all Seattle households introducing the Program and educating the public about how the Program will be administered. Information will include how residents may receive, request, and submit vouchers.

January 3, 2017 – Open registration for the voucher program begins this day. Vouchers will be mailed to currently registered voters on this day. Seattle residents will have the opportunity to register and request vouchers throughout the election year from January 3, 2017 until October 1, 2017.

January 3, 2017 to December 1, 2017 – Seattle residents may assign vouchers to eligible candidates by writing the candidates’ name, date redeemed, and signing each voucher for validation between these dates. Vouchers must be returned to the Seattle Ethics & Elections office before December 1, 2017."

Supporters of Initiative 1464 say state taxpayer funded campaign vouchers will "push candidates to focus less on big campaign donors and spend more time listening to voters."

The taxpayer funded vouchers will only apply to state legislative candidates through 2022. Starting in 2024, the commission can decide whether to expand to other statewide office candidates (Sec 13).

So what exactly has been the experience at both the national and state level when it comes to taxpayer funded campaigns? 

According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), American's support for the “check the box” public funding for President has “declined each year.” From the FEC:

“. . . participation in the tax check-off program has declined each year, from a high of 28.7% for 1980 returns, to 5.4% for returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2015.”

The FEC also notes that in 2014 “President Barack Obama signed legislation to end the public funding of presidential nomination conventions.”

Writing for CNN, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says the taxpayer money that used to be provided for the political party conventions instead was redirected "toward a more worthy cause: researching cures for children's diseases."

(Note: The Office of Financial Management projects I-1464 will cost approximately $171.5 million over the next 6 years.)

While taxpayer support of the presidential "check the box" campaign funding has seen declining support, how about the impact of taxpayer funded campaigns at the state level? 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures

“Public financing of campaigns remains the least-used method of regulating money in elections, partly due to the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo. In that decision, the Court struck down a provision of the Federal Election Commission mandating public financing for presidential elections. States cannot require candidates to use public financing programs, and the financial advantages of private fundraising frequently prompt candidates to opt out of public financing programs, which often include expenditure limits for participants. Candidates who opt not to use public funds can solicit contributions from individuals, PACs, unions, parties, and corporations, without having to abide by state expenditure limits.” 

There is also the ethical question of whether taxpayer funding of campaigns is forced speech for candidates you may disagree with. 

Writing about a 2013 proposal in Seattle, Washington Policy Center’s Paul Guppy said:

"The strength of our democracy is voluntary participation in civic life. Giving to politics should be based on principles and belief, not force. Each of us should be free to give to the people and ideas we support or, if we choose, not give to political campaigns at all.

With forced campaign contributions, the law would make people provide money to the campaigns of candidates we may want to keep out of office . . . A forced political contributions law would not enrich our democracy or create better choices, it would just direct public money to certain candidates."

For example, imagine Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton moving to Washington and deciding to run for the legislature. Many Washingtonians no doubt would be vehemently opposed to the forced political speech of having tax dollars go to support these campaigns via the vouchers.

An alternative approach is for improved campaign transparency as recommended by former Secretary of State Sam Reed. He told me: 

“After decades of trying, I am skeptical about any approach reducing money in campaigns based on 1st Amendment court precedents. Instead immediate transparency should be the goal.”

Since I-1464 is modeled after a Seattle program that hasn’t taken full effect yet, it would be prudent to wait to see if this new approach is more effective than prior national and state taxpayer funded campaign laws before adopting the policy statewide. 

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