Canvassers from a coalition of community organizations, including Common Cause New Mexico, have been out all across Albuquerque this summer working to gather 19,480 signatures to put an innovative measure on this November’s ballot called “Democracy Dollars.” Thanks to the almost 28,000 of you who signed a petition, we made it! Democracy Dollars is an amendment to our city’s charter to modernize Albuquerque’s public financing program, which fewer and fewer of our city’s candidates have been using.
In last year’s mayoral election, only one candidate took public financing. All other candidates were privately financed, many of them by city contractors, realtors and developers. In previous elections many more candidates, both Republican and Democratic, took advantage of this voluntary system, which was overwhelmingly – 69 percent – passed by the voters back in 2005. But by 2017, with the exception of a few council candidates, most contenders decided that limiting their spending to the amount allowed through public financing rendered them noncompetitive. And, in the end, independent PACS got into the act as well, funding negative advertisements and dividing our city.
This decreased participation started after 2011, in the wake of higher court decisions that struck down a key provision of our law that had “triggered” additional funds be distributed to qualified candidates who were being outspent by outside private money. Since then a city task force of lawyers and constitutional experts have been searching for a solution. That solution has now come straight from the voices of the people who signed our petition and will vote in November. It is called Democracy Dollars.
Here’s how Democracy Dollars work. The basics of the public financing program remain the same – candidates who are willing to not accept private donor monies, and who qualify by collecting enough signatures along with small $5 contributions, get a block grant from the city’s Open & Ethical Election Fund for their campaign. The original rationale remains the same – public financing frees candidates from the need to focus on raising large private contributions and allows them to focus on YOU, the individual voters whose interests they want to represent! The roles and voices of ordinary citizens will again be elevated and heard.
Each Albuquerque voter will be mailed a $25 coupon, or “Democracy Dollar,” from the city clerk to contribute to a participating candidate of his or her choice. Candidates receiving the new kind of contributions can then redeem them for their face value for their campaign. The vast majority of citizens who are not able to make a monetary contribution under the present system will now have a new role – as small donors, with a new way to have their voices heard, and a new stake in our democratic system.
Democracy Dollars would require no additional city funding for a number of years. Funding for these coupons, as well as the entire program, will come from existing funds in the city’s Open and Ethical Elections Fund. Since candidate participation has dropped because “trigger” funds were over-ruled by the court, the fund set up by the city charter in 2005 is now quite solvent and continues to receive a regular distribution of a small percentage of the general fund each election cycle.