Publicly financed campaigns are the logical next step in Austin

Way back in 2015 I wrote a story for the Chronicle about the city’s campaign finance system.

From the perspective of classic campaign finance reform advocates, Austin’s system is thought to be a strong one, equipped with a number of restrictions aimed at keeping wealthy people and special interests from controlling city politics. Austin’s city charter bars individuals from contributing more than $350 to a municipal campaign (a figure adjusted annually for inflation).

…But not everybody is sold on the notion that such strict rules are actually in the interest of the little guy. First, there is the age-old argument that strict campaign finance limits mainly help incumbents, since those in office benefit from greater name recognition. For challengers to have a shot of taking down a better-known incumbent, they have to be able to raise money to introduce themselves to voters via media. Another criticism of strict limits is that it appears to help wealthy candidates. There are no limits on how much money a candidate can loan to his or her own campaign, meaning that rich candidates can spend freely on staff, fliers, office space, and all the other necessities of a modern campaign from day one, while a candidate of modest means has to work hard to raise money from a large base of small donors.

Public financing is the way to go. Deep down, I’m convinced that everybody kind of knows that. Sure, we’d all end up subsidizing some truly loathsome candidates, but we’d also free candidates and elected officials to redirect their focus from donors to constituents. In the meantime, it’s tough to know where to draw the line in terms of contribution limits, especially since third-party groups are allowed to spend as much as they want independently.

That’s why the Charter Review Commission has recommended implementing a “democracy dollars” public financing option modeled on a similar program that exists in Seattle. In that city, registered voters each get four $25 vouchers that they can give to any City Council candidate who has (a) agreed to abide by certain fundraising restrictions and (b) has convinced at least 150 voters (at least 75 from their district) to donate $10 to their campaign. For mayoral candidates, the system won’t go into effect until 2021, and the threshold will be higher: 600 donors.

The result in Seattle has been a far more diverse donor pool.

In the mayor’s race, more than half of the donations came from households with incomes of at least $100,000. But among voters who used democracy vouchers, just 36 percent had household income at that level. And among poorer Seattle households — those with incomes below $50,000 — donor participation was at 14 percent with democracy vouchers, compared with 9 percent without.

The voucher program also appears to have dramatically increased political giving by younger people. In the mayor’s race, 57 percent of donations came from people 50 or older, compared with 42 percent among voucher donors. The voucher program had double the percentage of giving coming from people under 25 when compared with the mayor’s race.

In Austin, despite strict contribution limits, donors are hardly representative of the broader community. From the Charter Review Commission report:
The top 3 Austin contributing zip codes (out of 43 city zip codes) contributed 43.9% of all council candidate funds in the 2016 election cycle; the bottom 10 zip codes provided 1%.
In the 2016 election cycle, three Austin zip codes (78731, 78703 and 78746) each produced more than $100,000 in council candidate contributions.  These zips together produced a total of almost $400,000, or 43.9% of all Austin‐originated council contributions.
The top 10 top contributing zip codes produced 71% of all council contributions, although they contain only a quarter of Austin’s residents.  The remaining 33 Austin zip codes, containing three‐fourths of Austin’s population, produced only 29% of contributions. The bottom 10 contributing zip codes, with 11% of the population, produced 1% of the contributions.
The 10-1 City Council helped extend representation to those outside of the affluent/Anglo crowd that had dominated city politics forever. A more democratic campaign finance model is the logical next step towards a city government that more accurately reflects the community.

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