How Albuquerque's new “clean elections” system works
Two years ago, amid growing concerns over the influence of special interest money in elections, Albuquerque voters passed a ballot initiative creating a mechanism to publicly financed municipal campaigns. The initiative passed overwhelmingly with 69 percent of the vote.
This election cycle marks the first time it's being road-tested, with five candidates for City Council opting to use the new system.
So far, Albuquerque's little experiment with publicly financed democracy seems to be going well. “I'm very happy with the process,” says Assistant City Clerk Kelli Fulgenzi. “I think our candidates are very pleased with how smoothly it's going. We've heard so many positive things and haven't really gotten any negative feedback.”
The system's purpose is to help elected officials avoid conflicts of interest—that is, perceived or actual obligations to do special favors for private donors. An added benefit is that the public funding program allows candidates to spend more time articulating their platforms and less time begging for money.
In theory, at least, this should mean better-prepared candidates and a more idea-based public discourse during campaign season. The new funding mechanism also makes it possible for candidates who aren't rolling in wealth to have a fair shot at public office.
On the other hand, critics of the system complain that it forces taxpayers to fund candidates they don't support. They also say it's just too expensive.
So how much does it cost? That depends on how many people qualify to use it. For this election cycle, Albuquerque taxpayers will pay around $150,000, considerably less than the one-tenth of one percent of the city's budget that's been set aside for the program.
Here's how it all works:
• First, the system is entirely voluntary. If candidates don't want to use it, they're free to collect private donations. If they do want to use it, however, they agree to abstain from collecting any additional outside money or in-kind donations.
• Publicly financed candidates have to collect $5 donations from 1 percent or more of every registered voter in their districts. That worked out to about 300 separate donations for this year’s Council candidates who are using the system. The idea behind this requirement is to make sure potential candidates have enough public support to run a legitimate campaign before taxpayers start handing them public money. This round of candidates had until May 31 to hand in their required donations.
• To get on the ballot, candidates then had until July 27 to hand in signatures from 2 percent of eligible voters in their districts. These signatures are required of all candidates, whether they use the financing system or not. If the publicly financed candidates fail to meet this requirement, however, they must return all the money they received from the city.
• Each participating candidate received somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 minus the amount of donations they acquired from eligible voters at the beginning of the process. The city clerk has published rules on how the money can be spent. Participants are required to keep detailed records of all expenditures.
• After the election, candidates are required to return all funds not spent on their campaigns to the city.
You can find out much more about all this at the clerk's website at www.cabq.gov/clerk. On the site, you can also track disclosure statements from the candidates to see how they're spending that public money.
Two contradictory studies examined the effectiveness of Arizona's statewide campaign public financing system. You can guess from their titles the conclusions each of them reached.
“Reclaiming Democracy in Arizona”
(Click on “Publications.”)
“Campaign Promises: A Six-Year Review of Arizona's Experiment with Taxpayer-financed Campaigns”
(Go to the “Research” menu and click on “Center for Constitutional Government.”)