Cha-Ching—here’s my vote! An idea to bring about a small amount of campaign reform to city elections has taken up the attention of both the Bernalillo County Commission and the Albuquerque City Council at their recent meetings.
Democracy Dollars, or Burque Bucks, as some advocates are calling the program, garnered about 28,000 signatures during a July city-wide public petition drive, of which 19,693 were certified by the city clerk. This is just over the 19,480 signatures needed to place a citizen-driven ballot question in front of voters during the next election period.
The twist here is that the next election ballot is under the control of Bernalillo county. To get a city question on this year’s ballot it must go through the County Commission for approval. If this was an odd numbered year, like next year when there will be a regular city election, this issue would be on the municipal ballot and the county wouldn’t be involved in its production.
The proposal says that registered city voters would get a $25 “voter voucher” to contribute to any publicly financed municipal candidate of that voter’s choice. These candidates could then redeem the coupons with the City Clerk to get additional campaign funds. The vouchers are not for candidates that choose to raise their own unlimited amount of money. The additional funds to implement this will come from an already existing election type fund. This would only apply to Albuquerque candidates; not county or state level aspiring politicos. If voters give it the thumbs up, the amendment also directs the City Council to provide ways and means for all the details such as the issuance, assignment and redemption of said D-dollars.
Currently, the city’s charter provides that qualified publicly financed candidates are eligible only for an initial amount to cover basic campaign costs. This is about $1 per voter or about $30,000 to $40,000 for City Council candidates and $380,000 for those vying for the mayor’s hat. In addition, this charter amendment would raise the amount of financing mayoral candidates receive to $1.75 per voter to help offset the real costs in that bigger race.
The proposed amendment also changes the election dates for municipal elections from the first Tuesday of October to the first Tuesday in November in odd numbered years.
Local organizers and supporters say the new rules will encourage more diverse city residents to participate in local elections by allowing regular people to give money to their chosen candidates. They also say this is a small but necessary campaign reform step because of the big dollars that get injected into the privately financed candidates’ coffers, while the publicly financed candidates have a set amount with which to do political battle. This, they say, will help even out the uneven field, a little bit.
The County Commission met last week to take what supporters thought was going to be a slam dunk vote to put the Democracy Dollars measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. But surprisingly, the Commission voted down the ballot request on a 3 to 2 vote. Democrat Commissioner Steven Quezada joined Republican Lonnie Talbot and James Smith to vote against it. Democrat Commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley supported it. Quezada said he had too many questions, such as what the City Council’s role would be, since the measure impacts its jurisdiction and not the county’s. The no votes all said they had concerns over the many unanswered questions about how the city would administer the program.
There is no debate required as to whether or not the Council wants to accept a citizen driven ballot initiative question: If citizens get the required number of signatures and they are accepted by the city clerk, then the proposal should go to ballot in a timely matter. The Council role is to simply accept the clerk’s report. Now that such procedural business has taken place, it may sway the nay-saying commissioners to reverse their votes at Tuesday’s meeting.
Seattle has had its version of voter vouchers in place since 2015. Qualified voters get a total of $100 worth of political coupons. Seattle’s program is funded through a 10-year property tax. Many consider the program to be a success and say it has boosted participation on both sides of the elections, by younger and regular income voters. But the voucher program faces charges of corruption and a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, who upheld the legality of Seattle’s voucher program saying it did not violate free speech, while also correcting imbalances in the program.
Austin, Texas, voters will get their chance to vote on getting their own version of Democracy Dollars in their municipal campaigns. Those voters will soon be asked—in November of course—if they want to spend about $1.5 million to provide $100 million worth of $50 dollar increment vouchers to each of Austin’s voters.
Campaign finance is a key issue for many states who are looking for ways to rein in campaign finance disparities. South Dakota and Washington state have passed their own versions of democracy dollars. But the South Dakota Republican state Legislature did not like the idea and repealed it altogether: who needs all those pesky candidates from among the people using public money to participate?, they seemed to ask with their rejection of the plan.
The down vote by the County Commission did not sit well with a lot of folks. They made enough noise that the commission to agreed to revisit the ballot request at a special meeting set for Tuesday, Aug. 21.
This meeting is just in time to beat the secretary of state’s Aug. 28 deadline for the county’s ballot submission. If the Commission upholds its negative decision, then the city may have to hold special election in a timely matter for voters to get a chance to weigh in, or figure out how to wait a year before advancing the petition’s outcome.
It is a bit frustrating that this second vote by the County Commission will take place just as we go to press. At every coffee shop in town, people reading Weekly Alibi will be wondering, “What happened next?” Fear not, we will have an update on our website. Head over to alibi.com, post meeting, to find out if the County Commission will allow city voters decide if they want to participate in a “voter voucher” campaign finance reform measure.