Proposal for public financing of Denver elections is deeply flawed
Money talks in politics, but not always as loudly as some critics claim. In Denver’s municipal election two years ago, for example, the candidates who raised the most money in seriously contested races actually lost more often than they won.
Even a huge fund-raising advantage is no guarantee of success. In the city auditor’s race, Timothy O’brien prevailed despite raising roughly one-fourth as much money as his rival. In the District 1 City Council contest, Rafael Espinoza collected about one-third as much as the incumbent but still defeated her.
Keep this context in mind as we examine the Democracy for the People initiative for which supporters are gathering signatures to put on this fall’s city ballot and which would introduce major public funding to Denver’s political campaigns. According to Jonathan Biggerstaff of Cleanslatenow.org, organizers are well on their way to reaching the required mid-august signature threshold.
Denver voters should be deeply skeptical. The city may appear to be awash in revenue these days, but are its residents really eager to funnel nearly $8 million of tax revenue into political campaigns every four-year election cycle in order to “curb corruption and its appearance” — in the words of the initiative — “and to protect the integrity of the electoral process”?
Those are mighty strong words, perhaps chosen to justify diverting revenue from popular programs, as will inevitably occur. As it happens, outright corruption in Denver is relatively rare. Nor is the initiative likely to succeed at the far less lurid goal of leveling the political playing field in any meaningful way.
Finally, the measure is poorly drafted on critical issues and could suck campaigns into a quicksand of compliance difficulties.
If nothing else, however, the ballot measure is ambitious, laying out a comprehensive set of campaign finance rules. Among the most important:
• It sharply reduces the limits on contributions (from $3,000 to $1,000 for mayor, for example, and from $1,000 to $400 for City Council districts).
• It mandates a host of reporting requirements for independent expenditures.
• Most notably, it creates a public funding option for candidates who agree to even lower donor limits ($500 for mayor, $200 for council districts) and to participate in three debates, and who forgo contributions from political committees. Candidates for most offices could tap into a Fair Elections Fund (capped at $8 million) once they had at least 100 contributions from Denver residents. Mayoral candidates would need 250 donors. At that point, the first $50 of every contribution would be matched “by 900 percent.”
In other words, a $50 donation would become $500!
Biggerstaff argues this is necessary “to reduce the influence of special interest money in politics. When politics is predicated on money as it is today at every level of politics,” he says, “it perpetuates the cycle of political inequality.”
He believes Denver is especially ripe for reform because of its recent growth, citing gentrification. “Developers have money and tend to donate a lot of money to election campaigns,” he explains. “People on the other side of the gentrification issue don’t have as much money. They rightly feel their voices don’t carry as much weight. We want to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
Biggerstaff is probably right that people of modest means would be more likely to give money to campaigns knowing that up to $50 would be matched ninefold with public money. That seems to have occurred in New York City, for example, which provides a 6-to-1 match for contributions up to $175. The liberal Brennan Center and
the Campaign Finance Institute say they documented “a dramatic increase in the number and diversity of the city’s residents” who gave to campaigns after the matching funds became law.
But even if that were true, would it be likely to change the dynamic of who tends to run for office and who is elected in Denver? It’s doubtful, especially given the success that minority candidates already routinely enjoy.
Indeed, the proposed law could easily give incumbents an even greater leg up, since they can raise money for their next campaign during their entire time in office. Those who choose the public funding option will likely reach the 100-donor threshold long before any challenger jumps into the race. And unless challengers are fund-raising dervishes who start early enough, they could have trouble reaching the qualifying threshold in time for the money to do much good.
This should not be surprising. The record of public funding for campaigns, The Washington Post concluded in 2014, is that they do “not seriously disrupt the traditional advantages enjoyed by incumbents. While races tend to be more competitive, officeholders still win reelection as much as ever.”
Another major liability for newbie campaigns: verifying that donors are Denver residents. John Bennett, who spent years as chief of staff for the Denver City Council, pointed out to me recently that even well-heeled campaigns don’t always succeed in complying with today’s much simpler rules. Although no one is supposed to give more than $3,000 during an election cycle to a mayoral candidate, Bennett discovered nine people gave more than the legal limit to Mayor Michael Hancock. They weren’t noticed, he says, “because their contributions were made in dribs and drabs rather than one big check.”
Bennett worries that compliance complexity will mushroom under the proposed amendment not only because contributors must be Denver residents to count toward public funding but also because the proposal bars candidates from accepting donations from people who have major city contracts or have submitted a bid for contracts — information campaigns have no way of accessing.
For that matter, public funding could result in a huge boost in overall campaign spending, according to Bennett’s calculations. He cites as an example Council District 7, where nine candidates in 2015 raised a total of $394,402. “If the public finance program had existed and if all nine entered it,” he reports, “they would have raised nearly double that, $756,301. Is more campaign spending really what we want?”
The Democracy for the People initiative also appears to thumb its nose at court rulings on the First Amendment. Incredibly, it would impose burdensome reporting rules on any person or group that spends as little as $200 on behalf of a candidate or ballot measure — exactly the threshold that federal judges on two separate occasions declared was far too low regarding Colorado law. Indeed, the legislature just last year relaxed some rules for issue committees of less than $5,000.
Given Denver’s increasingly progressive political culture, a public-funding initiative for campaigns may strike a popular chord. But before voters decide to support it, they should at least ask themselves what problem they will be fixing that is worth, say, taking money away from filling potholes and maintaining recreation centers.
Vincent Carroll is a former Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News editorial page editor.