Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque voters will decide this fall whether to overhaul the city’s public financing system by giving political candidates another way to access taxpayer dollars – albeit one that routes the money through individual citizens.
The Nov. 5 ballot will ask voters to weigh in on “Democracy Dollars,” a program that would provide each eligible Albuquerque resident with a $25 coupon to give to the publicly financed candidate of their choice.
Advocates contend the vouchers would reduce high-dollar donors’ influence in local government and give more voice to citizens who might not otherwise be able to contribute.
“One of the biggest pieces is creating a community donor class,” Olé Executive Director Andrea Serrano said in a recent meeting with Journal editors and reporters.
But some say it could make public financing less fair and create new disparities in the system.
Albuquerque will be following Seattle’s lead if voters approve Democracy Dollars. Seattle in 2017 became the first city to use such a program. Although critics challenged it as unconstitutional, the Washington state Supreme Court recently ruled it does not violate First Amendment rights.
Although Seattle created a property tax to fuel its program, supporters in Albuquerque say that is not necessary because local voters in 2005 approved the Open and Ethical Elections Fund. Albuquerque contributes one-tenth of 1% of its general fund budget to the fund each year, and the balance is now $3.7 million.
Under Albuquerque’s existing public finance system, qualifying candidates get block grants – mayoral candidates get $380,000 and City Council hopefuls get around $40,00,0 depending on the size of their districts.
With Democracy Dollars, candidates could redeem the equivalent amount in $25 vouchers, potentially doubling their campaign funds.
The City Clerk’s Office, which would administer the program, said the city has not done a cost analysis on the program because Democracy Dollars is a citizen initiative and, if it passed, the City Council would determine some specifics through implementing legislation.
“An analysis will not be conducted unless and until the measure passes and the council takes up those questions,” said the city’s senior elections analyst, Miriam Diemer.
Supporters say the city has the wherewithal because the Open and Ethical Elections Fund was built to support publicly financed candidates to the same level as their privately funded opponents, but a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision has prevented the city from providing such “matching” funds.
Advocates – who collected about 28,000 signatures to get the issue on this fall’s ballot – say Democracy Dollars is one way to help publicly financed candidates keep up with opponents who run on private financing.
They also contend that it would encourage candidates to interact more directly with the citizens.
“That’s the game, right? You’ve got to work for these $25 (coupons). You’ve got to go into your communities,” said Adrian Carver, executive director of Equality New Mexico, which has joined Common Cause New Mexico, Olé, the Center for Civic Policy and the Working Families Party to push for Democracy Dollars.
The coalition says 400 donors accounted for most campaign contributions to privately financed candidates in the 2017 city election cycle, according to an analysis of the city’s campaign finance data.
But local Republican Party leaders say adding $25 coupons to the public financing system would create inequities by increasing incumbents’ advantage. Although all publicly financed candidates currently get the same campaign grant, lesser-known challengers might struggle to collect as many coupons as current officeholders with name recognition.
“As hurdles to challenging incumbencies go, Democracy Dollars is a huge one,” the Republican Party of Bernalillo County’s chairwoman, Julie Wright, and executive director, Geoffrey Snider, said in a written statement. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. If you don’t like your current officeholder, you will never get rid of them under the Democracy Dollars system.”
All registered voters would automatically get an individualized coupon in the mail, while those who are not registered but are federally eligible donors – meeting age and citizenship requirements – could apply with the City Clerk’s Office to obtain one.
JD Mathews of Working Families said that he saw “multipartisan” support for Democracy Dollars while the coalition collected signatures.
“There was a consistent message: People said, ‘We need to fix this. We want more control over our city government,’ ” Mathews said.
Democracy Dollars would be available only to candidates who complete the qualifying process for public financing. That requires collecting a series of verified $5 donations from those they want to represent, about 400 in a City Council race or around 4,000 in a mayoral campaign.