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Feeling disenchanted with democracy these days? You’re not alone. According to a bipartisan poll, 55 percent of Americans believe our democracy is currently weak, and 68 percent believe it’s only getting weaker.
Here in Denver, an effort is underway to reform the way candidates run for public office. The Democracy for the People proposal—which first earned a place on the 2018 ballot by way of a citizen-led petition in 2017—aims to increase transparency and reduce the influence of large donors in local elections through a series of new rules and regulations.
If passed, the proposal will drastically change the way that Denver’s political candidates can fundraise. Under the new rules, candidates would have to publicly disclose all campaign spending. Acceptable donation sizes from a single citizen would be slashed by roughly a factor of three—to no more than $1,000 for mayor, $700 for a city clerk or council member at-large, or $400 for a district council member (currently citizens can donate up to $3,000, $2,000, and $1,000, respectively). Candidates would also no longer be able to accept donations directly from businesses or unions.
But the biggest—and most controversial—change would come through a city-established and taxpayer-funded “Fair Elections Fund,” which would match small donations ($50 or less) by individual Denver residents to candidates in a 1:9 ratio (so a $10 donation would become $100; $50 would become $500). It’s not required that candidates take advantage of this fund, and there are certain requirements that have to be met in order to receive donation matching, but the idea is that the fund will allow small donors to wield more political power than ever.
The revised ballot initiative passed through Denver City Council on Monday evening, paving the way for voters to have the final say in the matter in the November 6 election. But what implications would these complex campaign finance reforms have on the Mile High City? We spoke with the experts to find out:
Why did City Council replace the original Democracy for the People proposal with this new revision?
The deal to pull the original ballot language was mutually agreed upon by City Council and the petitioners. According to Councilmember Kevin Flynn (District 2), City Council and the Denver Clerk and City Attorney identified some procedural and implementation time-frame challenges in the initiative’s language. Flynn offered to lead the revamping of the proposal to make the language more implementable and reintroduce the tweaked language by way of the Council.
Have other cities done anything like this before, and to what effect?
Yes, a handful of cities and counties across the U.S. adopted programs that couple donation limits with small donation-matching programs. Most notably, New York City has offered matching for small campaign donations in city elections since 1988. Though specific rules vary, Denver’s Democracy for the People petition was generally modeled after NYC’s program, according to Owen Perkins, president of Clean Slate Now Action, the group behind the 2017 initiative.
“In the New York City System, it’s demonstrated to have [an augmenting] effect on small donor participation, on small donor diversity, and on the degree to which candidates rely on money from small vs. large donors,” says director of the Campaign Finance Institute of Politics and SUNY Albany politics professor Michael Malbin, who has researched campaign finance in city elections for more than 40 years.
Donation-matching funds, like the one in NYC and the one being proposed in Denver, have also been shown to drastically change candidates’ approach to campaigning, according to University of Wisconsin political science professor Kenneth Mayer. “Candidates raise money in more diverse parts of the city, and they raise money from individuals who live in more modest income and racially diverse zip codes,” Mayer says. “It means [candidates] don’t have to focus on where the wealthy people are.”
If passed, could the new rules radically change politics in Denver?
According the experts, probably not. “It seems like it ought to be completely obvious that campaign contributions lead to specific outcomes,” Mayer says, “but the effects are more diffuse about the representativeness of the people who contribute money and [successful candidates’] overall responsiveness to the interests of different broad constituencies.”
Is there opposition to this initiative?
Yes, there is some, but it’s not as organized or vocal as the idea’s supporters. Denver political consultant David Kenney successfully challenged an earlier version of the proposal in 2016. The Denver Post reported that Kenney requested court intervention on the grounds that the initiative was too wide-ranging. The move prompted the petitioners—Colorado Common Cause and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group—to pull the initiative. Clean Slate Now Colorado picked up the baton in 2017 and created the updated version.
Flynn, who spearheaded the Council’s efforts to help revise the bill’s wording, also says he opposes the idea. “We took their version, we put it up on the lift, fixed the transmission, changed the oil, rotated the tires and gave it a tune-up. We made sure it could run on the street safely,” Flynn says. “I will vote ‘no’ on this in November…because I don’t believe we need to spend $8 million every four years funding candidates’ campaigns with public money.”
Can Denver afford to pay for candidates’ campaigns?
Under the proposal, the donation-matching fund would be capped at $8 million per election cycle (to be adjusted for inflation), costing the city about $2 million per year, or roughly .14 percent of the annual operating budget.
“The fact is, compared to the operating budgets of the cities that the elected officials are supposed to be overseeing, these programs cost very little,” Malbin says, adding that large donors often seek expensive favors from government, and one or more of those favors could easily dwarf the cost of public financing.
Do candidates need to meet certain requirements to get small-donation matching?
Yes, most notably they must agree to a halved limit of permitted campaign donation sizes ($500 for mayor, $350 for a city clerk or council member at-large, and $200 for a district council member). Additionally, they must have first gathered a threshold number of small donations: 250 for mayoral candidates and 100 for all other offices.
How much does it cost to get elected in Denver?
It depends on the job. Mayor Michael Hancock raised a total of $1.3 million in the 2015 election, down from the $1.5 million he raised in 2011 and up significantly from the $883,675 his predecessor, Gov. John Hickenlooper, raised in his mayoral campaign in 2007.
City Councilmembers raise considerably less. For example, Flynn raised $60,988 in the 2015 election, while Councilmember Albus Brooks (District 9) raised $42,630 in 2011.
What’s the next step for this initiative?
If approved by voters, the new rules would go into effect January 1, 2020, a year later than if the original ballot language were approved, giving all candidates an equal opportunity to opt for public funding (some have already fundraised beyond the new funding limits for the next election cycle).