Since Albuquerque voters overwhelmingly passed the Open and Ethical Election public financing code in 2005, we have had seven elections with publicly financed candidates. This year, voters will weigh in on Proposition 1, which will make the first major updates to the public financing code since it was enacted.
Proposition 1, on local ballots this fall, will modernize Albuquerque’s public financing system by putting publicly financed candidates on equal footing with candidates who accept private money. Proposition 1 also changes the rules so that candidates who do not follow the rules do not get taxpayer money. The changes stop candidates from accepting large donations for the full year before they seek public funds, and require people who act like candidates to follow candidate rules, whether they have filed a piece of paper or not.
When the voters adopted public financing, they set the amount publicly financed candidates would receive at $1 per voter. Privately funded candidates, however, still have the ability to raise unlimited funds. Recognizing this, the voters also approved matching funds, providing additional funds for publicly financed candidates if their privately funded opponents flooded the race with private money. Later, a Supreme Court ruling eliminated the city’s ability to give matching funds. Without those matching funds, the $1 per voter distribution – which was never meant to stand on its own to fully fund a campaign competing against large amounts of private money – falls short. Proposition 1 increases the funds distributed to $1.75 per voter so that public financing remains a competitive option. If Albuquerque wants public financing to remain as a realistic option, then it must provide realistic funding.
Proposition 1 will not increase taxes. The Open and Ethical Election Fund sits at just over $3 million and is funded from the city’s general fund.
A strong public financing system makes it easier for ordinary citizens to enter public life and run for office. Candidates can run competitive campaigns even without access to wealthy contributors, party bosses, lobbyists or special interest groups. Albuquerque’s public financing system makes candidates prove they have community support by requiring them to collect $5 qualifying contributions from 1% of the registered city voters in the district they want to represent – one of the toughest public financing eligibility standards in the United States.
For most City Council candidates, getting to 1% means talking to, hearing the concerns of, and getting to know 400 Albuquerque voters in order to collect those $5 contributions. For mayoral candidates, that number is close to 4,000. Candidates who are successful then receive a limited amount of money from the city’s existing Open and Ethical Election Fund to run their campaign. No further fundraising is allowed, so every participating candidate is campaigning on an equal playing field.
In his 1907 State of the Union address, Theodore Roosevelt said we need more laws that would “hamper an unscrupulous man of unlimited means from buying his own way into office.” President Roosevelt believed public financing of elections would ensure that no particular donor has an outsized influence on the outcome of any election and would be “a substantial improvement in our system of conducting a campaign.” In 2005, 69% of Albuquerque voters agreed when they adopted voluntary public financing of campaigns for city elections. Fourteen years of publicly financed elections in Albuquerque have shown the city’s public financing system works and also where it needs fine tuning. This fall, Albuquerque voters have the opportunity to make sure that our public financing system serves the public as it should by voting YES on Proposition 1.