Could Seattle’s Novel Elections Law Work Statewide?

A new effort would bring democracy (vouchers) to the masses.

Last fall, Seattle voted to bring public financing and tougher accountability rules to local elections. This fall, Washington state may follow suit.

The proposal is called Integrity Washington, aka I-1464. Like last fall’s Honest Elections Seattle, aka I-122, the initiative would give voters “democracy credits” of up to $150 per voter to donate to qualifying candidates of their choice. The credits would be paid for by closing a sales-tax loophole for out-of-state residents.

It would also create a three-year waiting period before retired public officials could start lobbying their old offices; limit the amount of campaign money candidates could use to “reimburse” themselves for lost wages (which apparently they can do?!); and lower the burden of proof for showing that a candidate illegally coordinated with “independent” political action committees (PACs).

And last, it would create what you might call trickle-down transparency in state politics. Washington already requires political advertisements to include the ad’s top five donors, so that voters know who’s behind them. But a loophole allows those top five donors to be other PACs, with no indication about where their “dark money” originally came from.

I-1464 campaign director Peter McCollum calls this “essentially a money-laundering operation, where you can just create a PAC with a very friendly name and the ad says, you know, ‘Paid for by Seattleites for Change, top five donors include We Love Washington, We Love Puppies, and We Love Apple Pie.’ People don’t really learn anything from that.”

If voters pass I-1464, that loophole will be closed by a requirement that those top five donors be actual human beings, companies, unions, or registered C-4 political nonprofits. In other words, if one of your campaign’s top donors is a PAC, you have to find out who that PAC’s top donors are, and so on, until you reach a person (or at least a legal entity more concrete and long-lived than a PAC).

Last year, Seattle voters passed a similar local measure called Honest Elections Seattle. While the full implications of I-122 won’t be known until next year’s municipal elections, it’s already shedding some light on local leaders. Its new financial-disclosure requirments, first reported on by the Seattle City Council Insight blog, recently revealed that Bruce Harrell is the richest City Council member, with a net worth around $10 million, while M. Lorena González is worth a piddling $22,000, at least on paper, and is still paying off her BMW.

Asked why Washington needs better electoral-accountability laws, I-1464 backers point to a report released last year by the Center for Public Integrity which gives our state a D+, or 67 points out of 100, for government accountability and transparency. On the other hand, compared to other states, we ranked eighth of 50—a steep drop compared to our third-place score in 2012, but still pretty good if you’re grading on a curve.

So do we really need this initiative? “Grading on a curve just tells me that this is a huge, nationwide problem,” replies McCollum. Consequently, “it’s all the more important for Washington to be a leader for the rest of the country.”

Indeed, the amount of money buying American political influence has skyrocketed since the Supreme Court ruled in their 2010 Citizens United decision to remove limits on how much money individuals and PACs can spend on elections. According to OpenSecrets.org, dark money spending on presidential elections rose from $5.9 million in 2004 to $308.7 million in 2012. And CPI reports that total spending in the current presidential election exceeds $1 billion.

Here in Washington, according to Open Secrets, total political spending during the 2012 election exceeded $60 million. This year, it’s more than $28 million and counting. In last year’s Seattle elections, total campaign spending topped $4 million, and independent expenditures added nearly $800,000. Most of those independent expenditures came from pro-business PACs which, as we’ve reported previously, piped money into one another like amorous frat boys in a drunken daisy chain.

It’s important to note, though, that money tamed our politics long before Citizens United. A 2014 Princeton paper analyzing about 1,800 U.S. policy decisions between 1981 and 2002 found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”^

This isn’t a partisan issue. Nationally, the Democratic and Republican parties have each raised about $400 million this year alone. “Both sides feel that the other party is … more compromised by money,” says McCollum. “I think what we’d all agree on is that there’s certainly a lot of influences on both sides.” The “we” in that sentence is also bipartisan: I-1464’s campaign committee contains liberals and conservatives, including Greg Moon, former co-chair of the Seattle Tea Party Patriots. “I think what’s very cool about the initiative is it can unite people from all sorts of political views,” says Moon. He’s more excited about the rules mandating transparency and limiting lobbying, but says he can live with the democracy credits as a tool for engaging citizens. “In politics, you often have to make compromise,” says the libertarian conservative. Moon hopes that “get[ting] the ball rolling” in Washington could encourage other states, and eventually maybe the federal government, to follow suite.

McCollum says Integrity WA is on track to gather the roughly 246,000 valid signatures required to make the fall ballot, though he wouldn’t give us a current number. He’s not yet aware of any organized opposition, though Seattle lobbyist Sandeep Kaushik told The Seattle Times that he expects the very same special-interest groups whose influence the initiative targets to oppose it. Last year’s opposition campaign against I-122 raised a paltry $45,000, mostly from Microsoft and local developer interests, compared to Honest Elections Seattle’s $1.4 million, most of which came from New York millionaire Sean Eldridge and liberal groups WA Community Action Network and Every Voice.

This year Every Voice is back as I-1464’s second biggest donor, following—get this—Connie Ballmer, spouse of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

In last year’s local elections initiative drive, many people commented on the seeming irony that major donors were so heavily involved in an effort to get money out of politics. Asked previously about his organization’s tactics, Every Voice president David Donnelly said, “We fully embrace the irony of working through a Super PAC to fight the influence of Super PACs.”

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