Alibi V.28 No.35 • Aug 29-Sept 4, 2019 

On Assignment

Revitalizing Our Democracy

Public financing will evolve if voters say so

Dede Feldman
Dede Feldman
Corey Yazzie

This November, residents of Albuquerque will go to the polls to elect City Council representatives, have their say on bond spending and influence the way that elections are funded and carried out here in Burque.

Among the issues being put to a vote: Democracy Dollars for public campaign financing in municipal elections. In case you haven’t heard, this proposal involves giving money in small amounts—$25 per registered voter, to be exact—to citizens so that they may show financial support for candidate(s) of their choosing.

Candidates who agree to the principles and then qualify for public financing from the City of Albuquerque will be eligible to recieve these small, individual campaign donations.

For proponents of the measure, including former New Mexico Senator Dede Feldman—who’s heading up the effort to move this legislation from bill to law—the new funding formula means a reinvestment in democracy with payoffs for candidates, political parties and, most importantly, the citizens who vote in municipal elections.

For those who exercise their right to vote, the benefits range from providing a real impetus to get excited about supporting a particular candidate to actually influencing the outcome of local races via their individual or community material input.

Weekly Alibi met with Feldman to get the lowdown on this latest variation on representative democracy. This is what she told us about a program specifically designed with you, the voter, in mind.

Weekly Alibi: For some reason, changes to the way we vote always seem complicated to the general public. So, Ms. Feldman, what are Democracy Dollars and how will Proposition 2 work?

Dede Feldman: Well, last week was a big week for the Democracy Dollars campaign. Now it’s on the ballot for November. Last year, as you may know, 28,000 signatures were gathered by volunteers from a number of community organizations to get this issue on the ballot. This is a public financing program. It is a fix to our current financing program that we have here in Albuquerque. Proposition 2 will only pertain to municipal elections. We do have public financing for other elections at the state level, for the Public Regulation Commission and also for the state court of appeals and the state supreme court. The City of Santa Fe adopted public financing by a vote of the people in 2008. We instituted public financing for municipal elections in Albuquerque in 2005. That was done by an overwhelming margin, 69 to 70 percent of the voters asked for public financing.

Right now, Burque’s public financing process is very rigorous, right?

The main thing about public financing, the main premise, is that candidates agree not to accept any private contributions and they agree to limit their spending to whatever the public stipend is. In Albuquerque, the city clerk administers the program. Each candidate must collect individual $5 donations from 1 percent of the registered voters in their relevant district or municipality. They have to collect signatures to get on the ballot, too. Those are two different processes. Both are separate from the awarding of Democracy Dollars, which comes later down the line.

How is the proposed system different from what happens now?

We’re talking about developing a hybrid system. The way the public financing system now works—and this would not change—is that candidates [who qualify] receive a stipend of $1 per voter in their district or municipality. Democracy Dollars adds potential funding to that formula and puts financial power in the hands of the voter.

Depending on the number of voters in a specific location, funding amounts can pretty widely, it seems.

Yes.

And the initial gathering of $5 contributions to qualify sounds like hard work.

It is. It takes a lot of work and they [candidates] only have a one month period [to fundraise]. If they do qualify for the ballot, then they qualify for the [public financing] stipend. It all hinges on a mathematical formula. Public financing is a voluntary program. The basic theory behind it is that, number one, campaigns are too dominated by big money and special interest contributions and number two, candidates therefore cater to big contributors and not to everyday voters. Public financing is a way that candidates can run without being dependent on big donors.

It sounds like public financing works as it is. Why add more money and decision-making to the process?

The problem we ran into was that public financing was hobbled by a 2011 Supreme Court decision called Arizona Voters. There was one provision [of the law in Arizona] that said if a privately funded candidate outspent a publicly financed candidate, additional funds would become available from government coffers for use by the public candidates. There was to be an additional distribution of public money because “Daddy Warbucks” was buying the election. That portion of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court. They said the practice was an infringement on the free speech of the privately financed candidate. That really handicapped publicly financed candidates.

What was the result of that change?

This is a mechanism that will allow candidates who are participating in public financing to raise additional money. The really creative thing about it, I think, is that it does that by enabling ordinary people who otherwise may not participate in a municipal election. This proposal gives each eligible voter a $25 coupon which he or she can donate to the candidate of their choice. They get one coupon per office being voted on.

Where does the money come from?

This is the wonderful thing; it’s not going to cost the city any extra money because there is already a fund—it contains about $3 million right now—in city coffers that comes from the original open and ethical government program that has been providing public financing since the law went into effect in 2007. One tenth of 1 percent of the general fund gets kicked in, so there is plenty of money. It will be a wonderful way to revitalize elections in Albuquerque. Ordinary people will have a real stake in the candidates they support and elect.