Think again

Campaign finance reform: An Oregon primer


Voters in Oregon will be taken to school next year on the complex subject of campaign finance reform — one of those subjects that looks good in the course catalogue but turns out to be a mind-numbing experience.

One course likely to be offered to Portland voters next May is called “Voter-Owned Elections.” Another, called “Fair Elections Oregon,” will be offered in two parts, if companion initiatives now on the street qualify for the statewide ballot in November.

These courses get more complicated every time voters, lawmakers and, invariably, the courts weigh in on the subject. And every time that happens, working people either gain or lose power in elections. That’s why I’m concerned. So here’s a crib sheet on what to expect from these courses and my first impressions of their impacts.

If it weren’t for the First Amendment, the prescription for fair elections would be as simple as one plus one plus one: One person, one vote, one dollar. Everyone’s vote would have equal weight, and every citizen would have the same one hundred pennies to spread across the political game board.

“One person, one vote” works in elections. But “one person, one dollar” doesn’t. That’s because the Supreme Court has ruled in more than a dozen cases since 1976 that political contributions and expenditures are a form of protected free speech.

Thanks to the First Amendment, no one can tell you how much of your paycheck, your savings or your family fortune you can spend to support the causes you believe in. And if you run for office, you can spend any amount of your own money to support your own campaign. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg spent $77 million of his fortune to assure his re-election as New York City’s mayor this year.

But there are limits to the First Amendment’s protection of your contributions to political candidates. You can’t use your contributions to bribe politicians or to gain corrupting influence over candidates. That’s why we have federal limits on contributions to congressional campaigns, although they are not the kinds of limits that allow working people to compete equally with corporations or shield candidates from undue influence.

Keep these realities in mind as we approach next year’s elections. Will these new proposals level the political playing field or tilt it further against working people? Will they encourage or discourage “individuals of modest means (to) join together in organizations which serve to amplify the voice of adherents,” in the approving words of the Supreme Court? If they discourage such activity, they will marginalize the participation of unions and working people in the political process.

Portland’s “voter-owned elections” system, enacted by the City Council this year, starts with the principle of “one person, five dollars.” Candidates can choose to run under this system by limiting their fundraising to $5 contributions. In return, once a candidate for City Council collects 1,000 such contributions, he or she qualifies for up to $350,000 in campaign funds from the city treasury. Proponents argue that it encourages candidates to connect with average voters rather than collect from fat cat donors. It appears to be having exactly that effect in states and cities as diverse as Arizona, Maine and Albuquerque. And, so far, it has passed all tests in the courts.

Opponents of voter-owned elections, led by the Oregon Restaurant Association, will try to overturn this new system in the city’s May election. They’ll argue that it means giving taxpayer funds to politicians. But that’s the point. Given the durability of the First Amendment, the only way to counter the influence of big money in elections is to use public resources to level the playing field. It’s an investment that could pay off in the long run, if it changes how the city hands out tax breaks and subsidies to big donors. “Forgoing just one unnecessary tax abatement could more than pay for the costs” of the system, says City Commissioner Sam Adams.

What’s headed to the ballot at the state level, however, is far more complicated. Signature-gatherers are touting two initiatives under the banner of “Fair Elections Oregon” — one to amend the state constitution to eliminate free speech protections for political contributions and expenditures; another to prohibit or limit such contributions and expenditures in ways that would be unconstitutional now. Supporters say this would give us fair elections. But their first measure would amend the state constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. If it passes, it would be up to federal judges to pick and choose which of the second measure’s far-reaching provisions would be allowed to stand. That measure bans corporate contributions, but it also restricts unions’ rights to conduct voter education campaigns and defines how much a political party, such as the newly-proposed Working Families Party, could spend on an issue like defending the minimum wage. A federal court could overturn the ban on corporate contributions but keep the restrictions on unions and political parties. That’s why I’m worried about the impact of these measures on the political the voice of working people.

My first impressions: “Voter-owned elections” offers a field-tested way to level the electoral playing field by giving “individuals of modest means” more clout in campaigns. The statewide measure looks more like a constitutional crap shoot that could end up helping the high-rollers.

Tim Nesbitt was, until Nov. 15, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He will continue to contribute a column to the Northwest Labor Press. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at