August 20, 2010 Volume 111 Number 16

Fate of Portland’s ‘voter-owned elections’ in hands of voters

Portland voters will decide in November whether to continue the city’s “voter-owned elections” system of campaign finance.

Several labor organizations are supporting the program’s continuation, on the grounds that it reduces the influence of big money in local politics. Under voter owned elections, a program launched in 2005, candidates for city office get public funding for their campaigns if they first demonstrate public support by collecting signatures and $5 donations from 1,000 registered voters. Qualifying candidates for city council and city auditor get $145,000 for the primary and $200,000 for the general election. In mayoral races, candidates who collect 1,500 signatures and donations get $195,000 and $250,000. In return for the public funding, candidates agree to limit campaign spending and do no private fundraising.

Oregon AFSCME Council 75 is supporting the program’s continuation, as is Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 and Portland Jobs With Justice.

“It helps people who work for a living,” said Oregon AFSCME Political Director Joe Baessler. “It gives people who don’t have means — or a network of rich folks — an opportunity to run.”

It also limits how much money is spent in campaigns, even among candidates who don’t opt to participate, Baessler said, through a kind of “moral pressure.” Baessler is critical of other campaign finance reforms that simply limit contributions but don’t distinguish between union and corporate contributions. Portland’s voter-owned elections program, on the other hand, gives unions at least one kind of advantage: They — and other membership organizations — are able to muster volunteers.

Voter-owned elections allows candidates to spend more time talking to voters, and less to big donors, Baessler said.

AFSCME and SEIU members turned out Aug. 14 to kick off the campaign with a rally at Dawson Park in North Portland, and then went door-to-door to talk with voters about it. The City ordinance that created voter- owned elections specified that the program was to go before voters for approval after five years.

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