Battle in Seattle Over Campaign Finance Reform

We’re not sending anyone new to Washington DC in 2015, but there are important local elections tomorrow, including a unique initiative on Seattle ballots. This initiative would drastically change the Emerald City’s campaign finance laws in an effort to stem the growth of big money in politics.

The initiative, known as I-122, would enact a series of reforms including lower spending limits, bans on certain types of corporate donations, and increased penalties for violations. But the most contentious change would be to publicly finance campaigns via a government-sponsored voucher program, where every Seattle voter would receive four $25 Vouchers to donate to candidates of their choosing. Those backing the legislation hope that this would spread power around in a more equal fashion, taking it away from those who have money and putting it in the hands of the politically aware.

Despite the altruistic goals of this legislation, there seems to be momentum building against I-122. The editorial board of Seattle’s largest daily newspaper, The Seattle Times, has come out against the legislation for a litany of reasons. The crux of the Times’ argument is that these changes are radical and untested, to the point where they might have the exact opposite effect as intended, and increase power to independent expenditure groups that do not coordinate with candidate’s campaigns (like Super PACs).

Another fear expressed by the Times is that the voucher program would run severely over budget. However, prominent Seattle Alt-Weekly, The Stranger, rebukes that claim, saying the bills opponents are using faulty math and do not understand how the program would go into effect.

So like ballot initiatives across this nation, there is a cloud of confusion surrounding I-122.

Even some arguments against this bill could be flipped around and used to support it; for instance the Times Editorial Board writes, “There seems to be a bigger play here. The I-122 campaign itself has raised more than $500,000, mostly from a few deep-pocketed, out-of-state donors who want to use Seattle as a testing ground for campaign-finance-reform ideas.”

This Times quote comes off as a bit counter-intuitive. For if they have issues with outside contributions, why wouldn’t they support an initiative that could end said outside contributions? Further, a good percentage of Americans agree that something needs to be done about money in politics, so if Seattle shouldn’t be testing ground, where do the editors of the Times want the testing to be done?

Who knows if I-122 will pass? Who knows if I-122 would actually change power dynamics in Seattle? But what I do know is that any discussion of campaign finance reform is good. I know it’s healthy for issues like this to be on the ballot in places like Seattle or Maine, where voters have their own clean elections bill to consider.  And lastly, I know this dialogue is the first step in changing a system so many Americans find so crooked.