Monday, March 29, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

‘Democracy dollars’ proposal looks to spread influence, participation in elections

Opinions are mixed about the potential impact of a ballot proposal that would provide city dollars to residents to fund local political campaigns, but proponents agree the intention is clear: to bring more people from throughout Austin into the political process.

Proposition H on the May ballot would create a so-called “democracy dollars” program; residents living in districts with a City Council seat would receive four $25 vouchers that they could donate to the candidates they support. The proposal, which is modeled after a successful program in Seattle, has been pushed since 2017 as a way to reduce the impact of wealthy donors around the city who make up the vast majority of campaign contributions.

Those who back the proposal also see the potential to make more candidates viable in a run for Council seats. Among the questions or criticisms of the plan is the possibility that Council could vote to fund the vouchers with a tax increase. There is also some question of whether state lawmakers would object to the program and attempt via legislation to outlaw or limit its impact.

Research from Austinites for Progressive Reform, which has helped spearhead the proposal, shows in the most recent Council and mayoral elections, 70 percent of all campaign contributions came from donors in districts 8, 9 and 10. The group also found that only 1 percent of the city’s voters donated money in recent elections.

Jim Wick, a local campaign manager and organizer for APR, said increasing the number of donors will likely bring more candidates into local elections and reduce the influence of wealthy donors on elected officials.

“We want to level the playing field when it comes to campaign finance, and tackle the influence of big-money donors,” he said. “This will help people who are not traditionally campaign donors. It’s the people who donate who influence the outcome of elections in an outsized way, and that’s not always a bad thing because it can result in good policy outcomes, but we can use this to increase participation.”

Estimates put the cost of the program at around $2 million a year to start and maintain. City Council would have the power via ordinance to decide whether to fund it with General Fund dollars, a property tax increase or other financial sources.

Bringing public funding into Austin elections would not eliminate private donations, which would still be capped at $400 per person. The city clerk would administer the dollars, initially as physical vouchers mailed to voters in applicable election cycles, with the intent to eventually add a digital component to distribute the funds.

Wick said the availability of more widespread money to fund campaigns would almost certainly increase the number and diversity of candidates in city elections, a dynamic that has been borne out in Seattle’s two elections using the system.

Fred Lewis, a local attorney versed in campaign finance law and organizer of the Democracy Dollars ATX political action committee, said the structure of the program is the best legally accepted way to reduce the impact of wealthy donors.

“It’s very practical and workable and is especially useful in the political environment we find ourselves in based on recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “This is funding a different approach where we will be able to put many more small donors into a place to participate in the election system, without being able to cap spending or take private money out entirely. This has been found to be clearly constitutional and we’ve closely modeled the proposal on what’s already been decided.”

Lewis said he would support Council moving to create an advisory committee to oversee the effectiveness of the program and ensure that candidates aren’t committing nepotism with the money or violating other campaign finance regulations.

“That way we’ll be able to fill in whatever gaps there may be, but it’s been set up to start well and work well. It’s already a loved thing in Seattle and it will be good all around to have more people able to donate and participate in elections.”

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May 2021 election

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