Brianna Thomas said before the first round of election results were released on Tuesday night (Nov. 3) that she was “cautiously optimistic” about the chances of Initiative 122 passing.
Few, if any, were expecting the measure seeking to limit the influence of corporate interests in politics would be able to claim victory on Election Night.
With more than 60 percent of voters saying yes to the initiative and a nearly 20,000-vote lead after the initial count, that’s exactly what happened, as a crowd of about 150 supporters at Grim’s Seattle in Capitol Hill erupted in stunned excitement at the news the campaign had garnered a huge early lead.
“I would have been happy to walk away with 52 (percent) and chase every ballot necessary,” said Thomas, campaign manager for the Yes on I-122 effort. “Sixty? I mean, it feels like heaven.”
That margin has only grown since Election Day, with the initiative leading by more than 40,000 votes as of the ballot drop on Friday evening (Nov. 6).
An equity issue
The most notable element of the campaign finance reform initiative is its “democracy voucher” program, in which every two years, each registered voter in Seattle will be mailed four $25 vouchers. In turn, residents can give those vouchers to the candidate(s) of their choice for mayor, Seattle City Council and city attorney. To fund the system, the initiative raises $3 million each year — making $6 million available per election cycle — through a 10-year, $30 million property tax levy.
The initiative limits campaign contributions from corporations that have city contracts of more than $250,000 and interests that spend more than $5,000 lobbying the city, and makes it illegal for both city officials and top aides to take lobbying positions immediately after they leave office.
Campaign spending is limited for candidates who receive public financing, and the initiative also sets a contribution limit of $500 in all city races.
Campaign reporting deadlines are tightened under the initiative, which also includes increased fines and penalties for those caught breaking election rules.
The passage also comes on the heels of analysis by WashPIRG of spending during the City Council primary election, which found approximately 1,500 contributors provided more than half of the $2.5 million raised by candidates.
Yes on I-122 volunteer Yvonne Socolar said she had been unengaged with the political system when she first moved to Seattle. Despite being disenfranchised by the influence of big donors and the lack of a voice for ordinary voters, when she learned of the initiative, she wanted to get involved.
“It made me feel like I was sort of at a loss for how my voice would be heard or matter,” Socolar said. “So an initiative like this one got me really excited about actually getting myself back into the democratic process and thinking that that might actually have some tangible result.”
Campaign finance reform is also an equity issue, according to Felipe Rodriguez-Flores of Progreso: Latino Progress.
“It’s not that our communities don’t care about politics, but it’s that a lot of times we don’t hear the issues that we talk about or we care about represented,” Rodriguez-Flores said. “We don’t see government officials doing projects that benefit us.”
By passing this initiative, Rodriguez-Flores hopes a direct benefit will be candidates spending more time talking to citizens and learning about the issues that disengaged groups like Latinos, immigrant communities and young people care about. In turn, that outreach would create more participation from members of those groups.
Bringing equity into the electoral system is also an aim of Estevan Munoz-Howard, a member of the campaign’s executive committee.
“I just see there’s an incredibly imbalanced power dynamic that emerges when you have wealthy people who are deciding which candidates are viable and, by extension, what issues will dominate that election cycle,” he said. “That results in regular folks staying home. They don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to contribute to campaigns, they don’t want to run for office and they don’t want to vote. For me, that’s just a fundamental problem.”
A model for other cities?
As Seattle now prepares to enact a new way to fund campaigns, some are hopeful the movement can make the transition from the municipal to the state or federal level.
Thomas said she’s seen the impact of working on an issue locally, having been involved in the $15 minimum wage campaign in SeaTac.
“I saw firsthand that cities are a place where you can innovate,” Thomas said. “They’re a place where you can try new things.”
Thomas said while attempts for reform on a national level can encounter bureaucracy and brinksmanship, making real dialogue almost impossible, local efforts are where people can have one-on-one conversations about their communities.
“I can go to your door,” Thomas said. “I can find it and knock on it and talk to you about what I think is important and what you think is important.”
Some want Seattle’s efforts to serve as a model for other cities around the country to create more equitable campaign finance systems.
“If we can become a model for the rest of the country, for the rest of the state, to implement similar policies elsewhere, then all of a sudden the jump to the state level doesn’t seem that hard,” Munoz-Howard said. “And if we can implement in enough states, then it feels like addressing it at the federal level becomes a lot more feasible. I really feel like we need to start where we have the most power, and that really is at the local level.”
To comment on this story, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.