The Portland, Oregon city council passed “Open & Accountable Elections” today, a reform aimed at curbing special interest money in city elections and making city government more representative and accountable to the voters. Portland joined a growing list of cities and states recently passing laws to curb the influence of big money in elections.
“Portlanders have had enough of big-money politics,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon. “We’re opening up a pathway for more representative local government, reflective of and responsive to all our diverse communities.”
“Frustrated by the U.S. Congress’ refusal to reign in the big money abuses that followed the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, Americans have taken matters into their own hands at the state and local level,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “Portland’s new law joins a growing list of reforms that have passed around the country to allow the voice of every American to be heard in system overwhelmed by huge and often anonymous political contributions.”
Portland is the fourth city or state to pass a form of public campaign financing this year, joining Berkeley, California, Howard County, Maryland, and South Dakota. The California legislature also voted this year to remove its ban on local citizen funded elections. Seattle, Maine, and Montgomery County, Maryland have also instituted public financing programs in recent years.
Open & Accountable Elections empowers candidates to run for office without taking large campaign contributions. Instead candidates can fuel their campaigns with small-dollar contributions from local city residents, matched with limited public funds. Candidates who participate agree to accept no more than $250 from any single contributor. Local city residents can have their small campaign contributions matched 6-to-1 up to the first $50, making every voice count. The matching funds system is voluntary, but includes stronger accountability and transparency requirements for all candidates, whether or not they choose to participate.
Open & Accountable Elections is modeled after similar programs in other communities, including in big cities like New York City and Los Angeles, smaller ones across New Mexico, and states such as Connecticut, Arizona, and Maine. “What we’ve seen in other cities,” says Titus, “is that this reform allows for a more diverse and representative candidate pool. Talented people can run viable campaigns, relying on broad community support instead of a narrow political donor class. Moreover this approach incentivizes candidates to campaign and govern differently, to reach out beyond a single narrow zip code area into all parts of the city.”
In rare cases, candidates have won Portland elections without a big money advantage, such as in the recent election of Chloe Eudaly. However, such cases are the exception, and candidates face enormous pressure to look to the city’s wealthy political donor class for support. Only 8 women, 2 people of color, and 2 people from the outer east side of the city have ever been elected to Portland city office.