Stop the Power Grab: Keep Our Elections Fair & Accountable

By Chris Smith of Portland, Oregon who describes himself as "a citizen activist focusing on transportation, neighborhood issues and civic engagement."

Yesterday, the First Things First committee had their moment in the sun, with a press event where they turned in 41,000 signatures to put the repeal of Voter Owned Elections on Portland’s May primary ballot.

Since they only need about 27,000 valid signatures, the issue is likely to be before voters (although with paid signature gathering there’s likely to be a lot of chaff in there and we certainly want them verified carefully).

Game on

There will be a spirited defense of Voter Owned Elections and you can join the effort now at

The repeal proponents have two messages:

Neither of these holds water beyond the sound bite.

The development of Voter Owned Elections was an 18-month process, including three public hearings, an extensive report developed by the Auditor and comment or testimony from thousands of citizens. Council responded to concerns that elections have become dominated by big money contributions.

Voters reinforced this message when they elected Tom Potter, a candidate who refused large contributions, as Mayor. Our election system is now about fairness, where any candidate with strong support in the community can get their message out – the half million dollar ante is no longer required.

And it’s not just about fairness for candidates, but for contributors as well: my $5 contribution, or yours, means just as much at the $5 contribution from a member of the business elite.

Can we afford it? How can we not afford it! The expense (which is firmly capped) is a miniscule fraction of the City Budget. Only a few decisions that are accountable to voters, rather than big money contributors, will easily pay back the investment.

Let’s take the Alexan in South Waterfront as an example. Council is hotly debating whether the tax abatement program to encourage market rate rental housing in the central city is justified any more. In the balance is whether this $60M property is off the tax rolls for 10 years. Getting this decision right or wrong has a financial impact that swamps the annual cost of Voter Owned Elections. Wouldn’t you like to make sure that when Council makes this decision, they’re accountable to voters, not elite contributors?

City Council did what we elected them to do: lead. Even at the risk of creating stronger competition for their own seats.

You can be part of the leadership by joining the campaign to Stop the Power Grab now.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    From what I've read, the First Things First approach seems remarkably steeped in mis-characterizations and unexpressed motivation. The name itself suggests that this group believes there is a "first," but if schools is the identified first, where is the advocacy by this group for schools, and where is their proof that this funding proposal has anything to do with schools (I believe the evidence is that the funding for publicly-financed elections will not take any funds from schools). The apparent connection between Ms. Burdick's run for City Council, and her firm's advocacy for FTF, is also an issue that should be out in front, i.e. perhaps the "First" advocated by this group is defeating Erik Sten???

    While I am not a strong supporter of publicly financed elections, this seems like a creative, innovative proposal, that has a relatively-small budget impact. Even for those opposed to it, why not just let us see how it works once or twice, before taking it on? If Phil Stanford ends up looking like a prophet, then I suspect the City Council might be the first to kill it. But if he, and First Things First, turns out to be wrong, we'll have a better system. And that should really be our first thing.

  • (Show?)

    the irony, Jonathan, is that while creative and innovative, it's not new. I get the sense that FtF is trying to play this as just another wacky idea from Portland liberals. The truth is that VOEs are a normal part of political life in Maine, Vermont, Arizona, now CT and other places as well. The empirical evidence based on their experiences strongly suggests their benefits:

    more candidates for office more female candidates more minority candidates more candidates from geographically underrepresented areas

    We can talk about the intangibles of knowing your representative isn't beholden to major donors, but there are some concrete outcomes that are positive for democracy and public influence on politics.

    I think if and (hopefully) when the electorate figures out that the big boys are behind the repeal effort, their attempts will be easy to paint as self-preserving and craven. But that message has to go out. Thanks for the posting.

  • (Show?)

    Re the Willy Week story: Man, Jean Ann van Krevelen is not only a really ugly woman, she bears a striking resemblance to Dignity Village's Jack Tafari! I'd say there's more than one scandal involving her supposedly being named Woman of the Year...


  • Chris McMullen (unverified)

    Wait a second. If the city is not involved with education funding, then why is Potter pushing for a city-wide income tax to fund schools?

    Seems First Things First is correct on that one.

  • (Show?)

    Chris, listen to your own words. The City isn't involved in education funding, but Potter is pushing for it to be so.

    Not only that, but if there were a city-wide income tax, that would be a new source of revenue -- not the existing budget.

    It's one thing to disagree with the policy. It's another to be completely disingenuous.

    Remember: Voter-owned elections cost less than one one-thousandth of the city budget. Money isn't the issue.

    Control of the levers of power is. The big business elites have it, the people want it, and they don't want to give it up.

  • Steve (unverified)

    "Remember: Voter-owned elections cost less than one one-thousandth of the city budget. Money isn't the issue. "

    Come on, if we dropped $10 on any boondoggle, it is $10 too much.

    Besides you probably don't know the history of a lot of these 1/1000 projects that start like PDC and the Police/Fire Disability Fund. This is the elephant's nose under the tent once they get manipulated by politicians.

  • (Show?)

    Yeah, Kari probably doesn't know the history of those projects. :rolleyes:

    Before placing a dollar threshhold on boondoggles, you might start by trying to make a case for VOE as a boondoggle in the first place, rather than a small amount of money well spent. So far we're not even talking $250K (although I bet Amanda Fritz is likely to end up top-two in her race, so up that 250K to include the general election payout).

  • Steve (unverified)

    "trying to make a case for VOE as a boondoggle"

    OK, even if we put this cap on money any well-connected person knows which charity or friends of the commissioner are on the short list. Very simply he makes a large donation to that charity and bingo, that gets him lunch with Commissioner X.

    VOE will not make a difference if a official is reachable with money. If a commissioner is buyable, then he is buyable regardless of what law we put in. The only thing I can see it helping is public funding of candidates who cannot raise money otherwise.

    If you think this is a better way to spend money than parks, schools or police, then I guess we disagree.

  • (Show?)

    Steve-- what makes you say that the spending on VOE and parks, schools and police are mutually exclusive?

    as for your perception on buyability, evidence from other places where it's been used, seem to rebut you. And there's a difference between bribery and influence.

  • Steve (unverified)

    "as for your perception on buyability."

    By buyavbility, I am taking Mr Smith's own definition of influence buying - "Only a few decisions that are accountable to voters, rather than big money contributors, will easily pay back the investment." The right contributions in the right place will give people undue influence with elected officials in spite of VOE.

    "what makes you say that the spending on VOE and parks, schools and police are mutually exclusive?"

    Because we have a finite amount of money and when VOE money is taken out, it is replaced from somewhere eventually. For example, why couldn't they take this money and keep police stations open at night?

  • (Show?)

    Steve, the "why can't you spend this for police" question is an important one. The answer is the special nature of the funding as an overhead charge. Because elections are a central function of government, we can levy a small overhead charge on EVERY budget in the City, including things that are rate-based, like the water bureau and use it for this purpose (the same way we pay for election expenses and City Council salaries).

    It would be illegal to take a slice of the water bureau budget and apply it to police.

    The benefit of this approach is that no single budget takes a big hit. It's unlikely for example that the impact on the police budget affects more than about one officer position.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    I would like to know what the beneficiaries of the City's major boondoggles, such as the tram, spent on city council campaigns in the past few elections. How much have people connected with OHSU given to candidates? What about Homer Williams? (For all I know, Homer might support VOE, but he still could be a good argument for it).

    What we need to do to defeat the First Things First initiative is show how much taxpayer money is spent on the stuff that monied special interest groups want--and then how much these special interest groups (or individuals involved with them) spend on campaigns.

  • Justin (unverified)

    People, you either welcome special-interest groups, like the big oil companies, conservative-christian coalitions, and large corporations (Wal-Mart anyone?) to line politicians' campaign pockets with big bucks - or you venture into public financing.

    You take one or the other; bitching about both at the same time is ridiculous. I am sick of hearing people complaining about both sides of the same coin; grow a informed viewpoint or don't say anything!

  • Steve (unverified)

    I understand what VOE is trying to do, it is just not an effective solution.

    Money in politics is like a game of whack-a-mole - stop it one place and it shows up somewhere else. People lobbying are very resourceful about using it to gain influence. At least with contributions you can see who it is.

    A lot better solution would be to track each commissioner's contact with these inside groups with some transparency and make it public record. At least we can see who is talking to who then.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    So, Steve, presumably you say that there's no way to get money out of politics, so we shouldn't try, because of course it would fail. By extension, McCain-Feingold was stupid, right?

    But no response to two important ideas: (1) it's been heralded where it's been tried, and (2) why not try it for a few election cycles, particularly since it has a relatively minimal budgetary impact?

    And as a counterpoint, if we hire more police, will crime still occur? Of course. If we keep police stations open at night (huh?) will it reduce crime? I doubt it. Could we realocate or raise more money to do these things? Sure, if we decided it would/could make a difference. The FTF group is underpinned by the notion that spending is a zero sum game, and if we care about what we're spending money on, we shouldn't be using that assumption; instead we should be figuring out the value that the public gets from expenditures, and using/raising revenue accordingly. If we can move toward getting big money out of politics might make a difference in approving real boondoggles, then in the end, this proposal could well have a positive budgetary impact.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    And lest we think that big money can't influence politics (or at least that it doesn't create an unseemly appearance of impropriety), today's news lends us a prime example:

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    TJ wrote:

    "The empirical evidence based on their experiences strongly suggests their benefits:

    more candidates for office more female candidates more minority candidates more candidates from geographically underrepresented areas"

    We could get these same benefits from limiting the city commissioners to two terms in office and districting the commissioner seats.

    And it wouldn't cost a dime.

  • Steve (unverified)

    Jonathan - I am not sayig we should not try to get money out of politics, I am saying VOE is a poor way to do it.

    If you really believe that Homer Williams (Pearl/SoWa), Gerdling/Edlen (Portland Armory), Ashcroft (CC Hotel) really got all the tax breaks, public money and projects thrown their way for only a $5K campaign contribution every 4 years, then I disagree.

    I am saying we need to monitor the behavior of elected officials a lot closer in between elections regardless of campaign contributions. Anything we can do to make their contacts with private interests as part of public record would help this.

  • (Show?)

    Commissioner Adams has a proposal, that has received little notice or support from the blogosphere and local print media, that would track and register City lobbyists. Why hasn't his proposal gotten any traction...the same people who are behind FtF put on a full court press to stall it while they take a wack at VOE. If they succeed to kill VOE, Steve's incremental solution will die too.

    Steve also doesn't make his argument against VOE very clear. There seems to be something, some reason that is more substantial to his argument against VOE. Simply tracking what Commissioners do is not a bad idea, but elections are what count. Updating and creating a new election cycle paradigm will only support Steve's reform.

    For me, VOE is about a dialogue that has long been dominated by Tax Abatements, Development Plans, Business Fees, and locking up the Homeless. Why? Because this is the dialogue that Commissioners have to have to get the $5k campaign contributions that ultimately spills over into Council sessions. When a candidates use the VOE system, the dialogue begins to shift from self-interest to the common good.

  • (Show?)

    Pancho-- the only thing term limits and district seats would address is geographic diversity...and that form of government has many of its own disadvantages (making commissioners beholden to only one section of the City being the prime one). And if you think changing the structural nature of how we elect our officials won't cost a dime, I'm not sure what to say.

  • Steve (unverified)

    "VOE is about a dialogue that has long been dominated by Tax Abatements, Development Plans, Business Fees, and locking up the Homeless. Why? Because this is the dialogue that Commissioners have to have to get the $5k campaign contributions that ultimately spills over into Council sessions."

    So you think only $1250/year (I assumed a 4-year term) locks up that much of City Council? I have to think there may be a few other dollars/favors involved than just what VOE will stop that VOE does not address.

    Again, we need to address their behavior once they are elected if you believe that undue influence is being brought since there are many other avenues to gain influence besides a $5K campaign contribution, look at Jack Abramhoff.

  • (Show?)

    True, focusing on a single donation and dividing that by the number of years one Commissioner serves gives you a paltry $1250. However, if you take the total contributions received and where they come from, one will notice the figure is much, much higher. Another way to look at it is to see where these candidates show up - large fundraising events. Sure, it's more time and cost efficient to do it that way. Again, what kind of dialogue can you really have with the voters? Choosing the VOE route as a candidate changes the focus away from big money donations. A candidate you chooses this route, to me, is saying they want to hear from me not becuase I can write a $5k check and get 20 of my other close associates to do the same.

  • (Show?)

    Pat, at the risk of going slightly off-topic, Sam's lobbyist registration plan DID get traction. It got adopted by Council and goes into effect in April.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    Actually TJ,

    Placing term limits on legislative bodies has a track record of increasing the number of women and minority elected officials. In 2001, the Michigan legislature increased the number of women serving in the state House of Rep's by 42% and number of African-Americans by 65% over pre-term limit numbers. These are changes in the number of women and minorities actually ELECTED (not just increasing the number of unelectable women or minority "candidates" seeking a public handout for their campaign - as taxpayer-financed-political-campaigns would likely encourage).

    The "problem" with term limits is that once new people are given opportunity to serve, they are suddenly uncomfortable with the notion that they are replaceable.

    Consider Erik Sten's (qualified) support of term limits as a first term city commissioner:

    "We need turnover," says Sten. "If we're not going to get it from campaign-finance reform, then term limits is a good second choice. That's a new thought for me."


    Can we assume that if clean money loses that Opie will stand by his word and advocate for his "second choice" of term limits for the City Council?

    Or how about then-first-time-candidate for Mult Co. Comm. Serena Cruz:

    "I can't imagine I'd be running for County Commission or any other seat if not for term limits," agrees Serena Cruz, a lawyer and Sten aide who's running for the North Portland seat of County Commissioner Gary Hansen."

    • also from above WW article.

    Did anyone notice in the summer of 2004, when Cruz voted with the rest of the Ladies of Hawthorne in trying to get the voters to abolish county comm term limits? (the proposal lost).

    Term Limits are free, they ensure fresh blood and competitive races without imposing the burden on your neighbors to pay for your political speech.

    Districting commissioners is nearly free. It would have a few nominal costs to set up but would likely save some money over the long run (not every seat would need to canvass an entire citywide vote). So probably a wash in terms of cost - certainly more bang for the buck than taxpayer-financed-political-campaigns.

  • Steve (unverified)

    Pat - OK, I'll try to restate, what if Mr Ashforth (Lloyd Center developer who wants the city to loan him $170M to build a hotel that will pay no prop taxes) wants to make a donation ($100K) to Commissioner X's favorite charity? This is not VOE money and it gets him a lot of face time with Comm X and some lunches and maybe a good word with PDC to make him the leading candidate for said project.

    I am NOT saying this is the way it happened, but it could easily happen. I am making the point that money is in the process, so turning off one faucet won't fix it.

    All I am asking for is transparency of the process by elected officials, so many closed-door projects would not get approved without voter input or knowledge.

  • (Show?)

    Pancho-- Can you explain to me why term limits, commissioners-by-district, and voter-owned elections are mutually exclusive?

  • (Show?)

    Thanks for replying, Pancho. I have to disagree with your assessment on term limits. Here's a < a href="">full analysis of the impact, focusing on Michigan and California.

    Some of the conclusions:

    Increased Electoral Competition* Even though open seat elections are generally more competitive, simply increasing the number of open seat races does not necessarily increase overall electoral competition. In Michigan there seems to be no effect, and in California term limits coincide with less competitive elections. We concluded that term limits have increased the incumbency advantage and decreased the probability that a state house election will be competitive. We gave term limits an F here.

    More Citizen Legislators* Term limits failed to achieve its goal of a citizen legislature. Indeed it appears to have had the opposite effect, so we gave it an F on this.

    Diversity in the Chamber* We find mixed evidence about the effects of term limits on underrepresented groups. Much of the progress depends on the fortunes of the Democrats instead of term limits. We gave term limits a C here.

    and in an analysis directly relevant to VOE:

    Independence from Lobbyists and Special Interests* •We found several indications that lobbyists have become more not less influential after term limits, and we gave them an F for the following reasons. –Their importance as a source of “information and guidance” on a bill about school choice increased after term limits. –After term limits, lobbyists were among the top three actors who determined whether a bill reached the floor of the chamber. Lobbyists were not among these actors prior to term limits.

    And in a City where 15.5mil became 45mil seemingly overnight, forgive me if I reject the idea that switching to district representation wouldn't cost anything. Changing the structure of government costs money, period.

  • (Show?)

    So far, with two seats up for grabs, there are exactly two people with any realistic prospect of getting "clean money," and one of them is Erik Sten. Not exactly proof of how "diversifying" this wonderful new system is supposed to be.

    On the ballot with the school tax, VOE is DOA. Checkmate.

  • (Show?)

    It's not, Jack? Amanda wouldn't have a shot without VOE, but now when she tells me she's shooting for 50% outright in the primary (saving the City hundreds of thousands, by the way!), I'm not so sure she doesn't have a chance to do it. Furthermore, part of the "diversification" is also in who contributes, not just who runs.

    In any case, it's pretty shallow of you to lay judgement without even a single cyle going by--why not refer to the empirical evidence supporting the diversifying effects? There are links available detailing such evidence, but Auditor Blackmer summarizes:

    Jurisdictions with public campaign financing see a general increase in the number of serious candidates competing for office. Research indicates that at least some of these candidates came from historically under-represented communities. Candidates have also testified that qualifying for a public campaign financing system is hard work, but it lets them spend more time in direct personal contact with a wider range of voters, and avoid the lobbying pressures of large contributors. In these jurisdictions, voters have come to expect candidates to participate in the public campaign financing system, and candidates are more likely to receive additional voter support for refusing large contributions. High enough thresholds assure the voters that only serious candidates are qualifying for Public campaign financing, and frequent disclosure of campaign expenses that public funds are properly spent.
  • (Show?)

    Either the system isn't doing enough to "diversify" the candidate pool -- or it'll be sooooo easy to qualify that too many nutjobs and wackos will qualify.

    Last year, it was the latter. Now, it's the former.

    Which is it?

  • Alice (unverified)

    Rightly or wrongly, the average Portland taxpayer believes the City of Portland is spending money like a drunken sailor. Notice I said average Portland taxpayer; not average B/O reader.

    We know that Vera's eponymous boardwalk cost $9,000 per linear foot. We've seen dollars devoted to the Tram, and trains/trolleys/bikepaths, and we wonder why Naito Parkway looks like the Tijuana Turnpike. Joe Citizen doesn't care how much our local tax dollars were "leveraged" by "Federal funds". We know where Federal Funds come from: they come from taxpayers. Money has been pissed off all over town, without addressing the basic maintenance of our infrastructure or our public safety needs.

    Joe Citizen doesn't care who is responsible for school funding or bridge maintenance. City, County, Metro, State...blah, blah, blah. Government is failing us at nearly every turn. Public Safety? Wapato. Infrastructure? Sellwood. Frills over priorities: 2% for public art and voter owned elections.

    I think you'll be lucky to pass either the City Income Tax or VOE. I'll be shocked (and moving to Vancouver) if they both pass.

  • (Show?)

    Alice, if that's true there's no way the citizens of the county--of which the vast majority are Portlanders--would have voted for a 3-year school levy.

    People are smart enough to hold competing concepts in their brain and evaluate them together--even Joe Citizen. I certainly agree that voters are wary of items that they know will cost them money. But they are also wary of money and its impact on the political process in the first place. And after another few months of the Abramoff revelations, I think you might be surprised to discover that purging the influence of money--whether VOE will accomplish that or not--will become an attractive item at the ballot box.

    The key, of course, is if the "political reform" meme can rise above the "wasteful spending" meme. But those who underestimate the taste in the current environment for curbing the influence of special interest money, may do so at their peril.

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