Why I support Voter Owned Elections

Jon Bartholomew

Why I support Voter Owned Elections

I'd like to explain why I plan to vote Yes on 26-108 in November. This is the measure to retain Portland’s Voter Owned Elections system. So why do I like it?

Let’s take a step back and look at how Portland was before Voter Owned Elections (VOE). According to analysis done by Common Cause Oregon, campaign contributions were big and growing. In the last election before VOE, 69% of all city council campaign contributions came in checks of $1000 or more. And that 69% represented just 7% of the donors. The average contribution size between 1992 and 2004 for city races was $365. After Portland instituted VOE in 2005, campaign spending dropped significantly in part because of candidates using the system, and in part because of self limitations placed by non-participating candidates. The average contribution has since dropped to $218 for candidates who don’t even opt into the VOE program.

The VOE system is tough in several ways. It’s hard to qualify – as it should be. Of 29 who tried, only 9 have qualified, and two of those have been elected. And there are tough rules on what you can do with the funds. They MUST be used for campaign purposes and there are strict transparency and accountability requirements. When there was someone who violated the rules, money was returned and a person sentenced to nine months in jail.

The most important reason I support it though is that it gives an opportunity for the people to take back the city council from wealthy special interests – the same ones trying to get their power back by campaigning against this measure. The Portland Business Alliance hates VOE because it limits their power. Under a traditional campaign finance system, the candidate with the access to the most money has the advantage. You either have candidates who come from money or are willing to dance with whoever has it. With VOE, candidates with strong community support but don’t want money from the Portland Business Alliance for philosophical reasons can run viable campaigns. And once in office, those city commissioners will listen more to the general public than they will to any lobbyist representing a campaign contributor.

But furthermore, I support VOE because I got to see a similar program that was more mature in action. For several years, I lived in Maine where voters approved the Maine Clean Election Act in 1996. Our VOE system is modeled in large part off of the MCEA, but Maine’s system is for the state legislature and Governor’s races. Like VOE, the MCEA had a slow start, with only about 30% of candidates using it in the first election they could. But as candidates started realizing how much better it was to spend time with voters instead of donors, members of both parties embraced it. In the last two elections, over 80% of the Maine legislature was elected using this system. And the results are very interesting. Maine was one of the first states to find a way to reduce prescription drug prices. They were the first state in the nation to safeguard consumers from deceptive free trial offers, the first state to require recycling of light bulbs that contain mercury, first state to pass climate change legislation, and they passed one of the strongest foreclosure prevention laws in the nation last year – all since they started getting legislators who took no special interest money.

In Maine, voters feel reconnected to their elected officials because of the Maine Clean Election Act. That’s what I want to feel in Portland. As a voter, I want to own my elections.

Therefore, I urge you to join the thousands of Portlanders who have endorsed Voter Owned Elections including dozens of local organizations, business groups and elected officials in voting YES on 26-108 for Voter Owned Elections.

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    I would be more supportive of VOE if it were connected to a districted city council. As it is, having a 150,000 spending limit on a election district that is larger than the typical congressional district is grossly unrealistic.

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    Paul, I absolutely agree that the City Council should be districted. Perhaps a permanent establishment of VOE would help move that conversation along.

    For now, VOE is what stands between us and the further immersion of huge corporate interests into local campaigns. In these new post Citizens-United Days, it's not impossible to envision mega corporate dollars dumped locally.

    While Portland VOE does not preclude an old fashioned campaign, it successfully sets a different bar by which the old style is measured. Campaigns are in contrast BECAUSE particular candidates have chosen to reach out to the voters.

    That VOE candidates have been successful shows that it works. That a VOE candidate that gamed the system was caught shows that the transparency built into the system does its job.

    VOE has passed its test. Its now time to make it part of the way we do things in Portland.

    Full disclosure: while I have personally supported VOE for a number of years, the Multnomah County Democrats have given VOE a rousing thumbs up and are on crew of endorsing orgs.

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