Last night, a modest crowd of political scenesters migrated to Seattle University to talk about the convergence of money and influence in Seattle politics. The Seattle City Council is considering creating a system to finance election campaigns with public money. Thursday night's talk, featuring guest speakers from cities who've passed similar election reforms, was the first public discussion in a process that could culminate in a measure that could appear on the ballot later this year.

The move for publicly financed election campaigns began last month, when Seattle City Council members Mike O'Brien, Sally Clark, and Nick Licata asked Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission to update a 2008 report detailing several public campaign finance options for Seattle. (The city was gearing up to adopt one of the SEEC's recommendations before the 2009 elections, when alas, the city suddenly went broke and started selling organs to remain solvent.)

The current thinking is that there are two models for Seattle financing candidate campaigns, as described in that 2008 report:

• A matching model: In this scenario, city council candidates would be asked to raise $10,000 in increments of $100 or less to qualify for $30,000 from the city. After that, the city would match donor amounts up to $250 on a 3:1 basis (if they had a challenger).

• A lump-sum model: In this scenario, candidates who collected $10 from 1,000 registered voters would qualify for $30,000 from the city. This would be followed by an additional $110,00 lump sum once a challenger entered the race.

Why publicly finance campaigns? Some people point to the 2011 election to illustrate the problem. During that election cycle, Seattle had fewer candidates running for office than any time since 1995, a drop in small contributions, a record-high in the average size of contributions, top donors contributing almost exclusively to incumbents—and all this on top of the massive $100,000-$300,000 incumbent war chests scaring off challengers.

"We've seen more candidates, it's helped candidates raise issues and have a voice, and it allows the public to have a greater say in their election process," explains LA ethics commission director Heather Holt.
"It's been a successful program."

Which is why experts from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland yesterday to explain the strengths and pitfalls of their own public campaign finance systems.

LA's campaign finance law was adopted in 1993 and without getting too into the weeds, it provides qualifying candidates with 2:1 matching funds through the primary, with a higher match in the general. In return for the public financing, candidates agree to adhere to campaign spending caps and personal spending caps, among other things. Holt says that seventy-eight percent of candidates have participated in the program since its inception.

John St. Croix, from San Francisco's ethics commission, offered similar insights while noting a shifting trend in donation sources: "We've noticed that the money that does come in is local money, rather than money from other places. We’d much rather candidates listen to contributors in their city than those in other places. It's given us a legitimate reason to monitor third-party spending, which gives voters an idea of whose paying for [candidate] influence. " Both LA and SF require candidates to submit independent expenditures to the city within 24 hours.

The consensus from last night's talk was that public financing doesn't diminish the inherent incumbent advantage but it does encourage more candidates to run for office, and promotes small donations and public discussion while quelling the perception that big donors and special interests buy influence. The speakers also noted that viable challengers force incumbents to answer to unpopular decisions while making city elections more issue driven.

But the programs aren't without their downsides, most notably, the dramatic increase in independent expenditures recorded in both cities. Independent expenditures increased in LA from $7,000 to over $1 million in the first year following its public finance system.

Here in Seattle, we'll have to wait until early March to hear the SEEC's updated recommendations for how a public finance model would best work, and exactly what the cost will be. From there, the council will have to hash out the issue of how to foot the hefty price tag, most likely by either funding through a property tax levy or setting aside money from the city's general fund. And then, of course, convincing Seattle voters that they should be paying people to run for office. "That’ll be one of the challenges, convincing people that it will cost a little bit of money but it’ll make our democracy stronger for everyone," O'Brien says.

"But it would be a small fraction of the budget," he adds, "a small price to pay for more competitive races, broader diversity, and it’s a small investment to make for really good returns."