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Prop H critics want more inclusivity in ‘democracy dollars’ program

Wednesday, March 31, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Advocates for local immigrant workers have come out against the “democracy dollars” ballot proposal set to go before voters in May, and are pushing City Council to pass an ordinance expanding its eligibility if the initiative succeeds.

Proposition H would create a city-funded campaign finance program giving $25 vouchers per Council race to registered voters, which they could donate to City Council and mayoral candidates in election years. The proposition, which was largely modeled after a program in Seattle, is intended to increase participation in elections and reduce the influence of wealthy donors on local races.

Groups such as Workers Defense Fund and Union Local 23, which represent large populations of working immigrants with green cards who are unable to register to vote, have criticized the proposal because it excludes those residents as well as those who have lost the ability to vote due to their criminal history.

Those groups also want new limits put in place on individual donations and total fundraising amounts.

Bo Delp, a political organizer with Union Local 23, which represents local food service workers, said opening the program only to registered voters limits its impact and prevents thousands of residents from having a role in local elections. Data gathered from 2017-2019 showed that there were 15,770 green card holders in Travis County.

“What the city of Austin would do if Prop H passes is exclude this group of people … many of whom are food service workers who have immigrated here from other countries,” he said.

“The question isn’t whether democracy dollars is good as a concept. What we have is a very specific proposal that we have to evaluate, including the consequences of its passage and having a situation where people are being excluded, and I’m not sure that solves some of the inequities we see in our city.”

Council Member Greg Casar has drafted an ordinance to amend the proposal if it passes. The ordinance would call on the clerk’s office to create a parallel funding program open to all residents who are legally able to contribute to elections regardless of their residency status and would establish fundraising limits for candidates who opt to receive funds from the democracy dollars program.

In a post on the City Council Message Board, Casar said he supports the initial recommendations of the Charter Review Commission to put in place more limits on campaign financing, as well as the push to make vouchers available to more residents.

“We’ve also heard from community members that any Austin resident who wants to (and can) donate to a campaign should be allowed to participate in the voucher program, regardless of whether or not they’re currently registered to vote. I agree,” he said.

Emily Timm, co-executive director of Workers Defense Fund, said her group currently opposes the proposal. She said the language appears to be drafted in a way that would increase the likelihood of its passage, at the expense of inclusiveness.

“What we’ve heard is that it was by design so that it would be more palatable and would be more likely to pass. In that sense it felt like they were willing to sacrifice some members of our community in order to achieve their goal,” she said. “If the ordinance passes City Council we may reconsider if there is a fix for our concerns, but as of right now we are opposed to the ballot measure as it is written.”

This story has been corrected. We originally reported that voters would receive $50 in vouchers, which is true during mayoral election years, as the distribution is $25 per race. Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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