As Democrats fret about turning out their base in Philadelphia ahead of the presidential election, Councilman Derek Green is exploring one way to get out the vote for local elections: have the city pay candidates’ campaign costs.
A growing number of cities have adopted publicly financed election systems. Originally a plank of early-20th-century progressives, public financing was primarily conceived of as a way to dampen the influence of wealthy donors.
Green’s interpretation of the benefits of public financing is a novel one. He believes that making it easier for candidates to run will make city elections more competitive, which will, in turn, increase public interest.
Two arguments in favor of his plan: currently, running for Philadelphia City Council can cost upwards of $100,000, and turnout in city elections has hit single digits.
“It could increase voter turnout because it levels the playing field for candidates,” Green explained. “If people believe they can run for office, they should be able” to do so, he noted, adding that the cost of running for office – regardless of the level – goes up every year.
New York City, Seattle and a number of smaller municipalities have adopted differently flavored systems in recent years. Generally, these models have focused on full public financing – where a candidate agrees to forgo private dollars in exchange for a guaranteed sum – or a “matching” system.
New York has employed the latter method since 1999, whereby a pot of public dollars will amplify each dollar donated to a candidate, up to $101,000.
Seattle is unique in offering residents a third type of system, employing so-called “Democracy Vouchers” – several $25 coupons issued to registered voters that can be meted out to candidates as citizens see fit. Passed through a ballot measure, voters approved a small property tax levy that will send $3 million a year into an elections fund.
In a Tuesday council hearing in Philadelphia where the issue was discussed in an exploratory hearing, Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said the vouchers were an important tool for increasing engagement amongst indigent voters.
“If you’re working two jobs, a $10 campaign contribution is not high on your list of priorities,” he said.
Amy Loprest, executive director of the NYC Campaign Finance Board, said voters who contributed to candidates were three times as likely to vote as those who do not. Although her city’s system had proven popular – 92 percent of legislative candidates use the system – she acknowledged her city was still falling short of its turnout goals.
“Voter turnout is still not great in New York,” she said.
Philadelphia campaign lawyer Adam Bonin said he supports the concept of public financing, although he was skeptical that it would do much to fire up the local electorate.
“I wonder what’s the chicken and what's the egg here: I can't imagine there are a lot of people who make contributions who aren't voters already,” he said. “As much as I support this, I think that they kind of have it backward. But [public financing] can free up more time for candidates to do more citizen engagement and less fundraising.”
But the obstacles to implementation are numerous. Cost is the most obvious – Seattle’s program costs $350,000 a year to operate and that’s excluding the actual cost of vouchers. That problem may be minuscule in comparison to convincing the average voter that financing campaigns is a good use of tax dollars in a corruption-wracked state like Pennsylvania. And there is no guarantee that candidates would even agree to the terms of the program, instead opting to fund their own races or secure donors who would do so for them.
“The problem is that it's difficult to convince citizens in a time of hardship that their tax money should be used to buy their democracy back,” said Bonin. “But it's worth exploring.”