If You’re Sick of Big Money in Politics, You Should Vote “Yes” on I-122

Go make democracy great again, Seattle.

Go make democracy great again, Seattle.

Here at Civic Ventures, we believe in creating civic change on a local level. At a time when Congress is locked up in partisan stasis, we look to our cities to be laboratories of democracy, the places where we experiment with new policies that carry government into the 21st century. This is not always ideal; city government doesn’t always possess the far-reaching authority that the federal government enjoys. But those limitations shouldn’t discourage us. Gay marriage started in the city of San Francisco, grew to a state issue in Massachusetts, and eventually became a federal issue. Cities tend to start these conversations, which then become national issues. And no city in America has been more innovative over the last few years than Seattle. We’ve been at the forefront of the $15 minimum wage fight and we’re engaging in civic conversations that will likely change the way future generations of Americans talk about gun responsibility, criminal justice reform, and marijuana legalization.

The United States desperately needs campaign finance reform. The system was already in decline when the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision established personhood for corporations and gave money the same protected status we give to free speech. But since then, corporate influence on elections has reached staggering heights. It now takes hundreds of millions of dollars to elect a president in America. The rules that stop candidates from conferring with political action committees are getting blurrier all the time. Politics has become super-saturated with money. That money results in real-world consequences: wealthy people and corporations enjoy greater access to political power than at any moment in modern American history. And Americans understand this; a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll recently found that one third of all Americans are concerned about the influence of money on politics, “more than for any of five other issues tested.” When you weed out Republicans, those numbers go through the roof: “roughly half of self-described liberals and Democratic primary voters ranking it as their primary anxiety as the 2016 White House race gears up.”

This is why I voted for initiative 122, the Honest Elections initiative. Among other things, I-122 limits campaign contributions from big corporate interests, makes it illegal for city officials to take high-paying lobbying jobs right after leaving office, sets modest contribution limits for candidates who receive public financing, increases transparency, increases fines on people who break the rules, and allows people to support the candidates of their choice with $25 “Democracy Vouchers.” This would be the first voucher-based campaign finance reform system in the entire country. The Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal ran a nice profile of the initiative earlier this month.

Locally, this initiative is a good first step toward campaign finance reform. Other state and cities around the country are working on their own solutions. Arizona, for example, is enjoying the benefits of its own clean election laws:

To qualify for a public campaign grant under Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections system, [Juan] Mendez had to prove that he had sufficient public support by reaching a threshold of at least 250 $5 donations from citizens in his district. That meant a lot of initial time spent pounding the pavement and knocking on doors—and not incidentally, it meant energizing democracy. “It’s really hard to start the campaign,” he says. “A lot harder than going to a developer, PAC, or union and telling them what they want to hear.”

Mendez qualified for the public grant and ended up running in the Democratic primary. While this was traditionally a progressive district, Mendez says he wouldn’t have even considered running without the option of public funding. He became the youngest legislator in the state, was re-elected in 2014, and was recently named co-chair of the Arizona Legislative Latino Caucus. He’s been at the forefront of the state’s progressive agenda, calling for immigration reform, the expansion of voter rights, paid sick leave, and a “yes means yes” law to combat sexual assault.

Campaign finance reform is on the ballot in Maine this fall, and Connecticut and Arizona’s legislatures are considering upgrades to their own campaign finance reform laws. Obviously, none of those proposed laws are perfect. But they are certainly better than the alternative, which is what we have now: an alienating, demoralizing system in which average Americans feel voiceless in their own democracy. From its inception, America has always been engaged in the pursuit of the “more perfect,” and that’s what proposed changes like I-122 are about: trying to locally reverse the catastrophic damage done to democracy by the Supreme Court with the Citizens United decision.

This is a battle we have fought again and again in America. When more groups enjoy the right to vote—women, African-Americans—our democracy becomes stronger. When our democracy looks more like our nation, government becomes faster and more responsive and smarter. Now, average Americans are losing their voice to big money. If we allow that to happen, government will become less responsive and more tailored to corporate interests. If this happens, our economy will flag because the true job creators—the middle class—will be penalized by laws that favor big money. Our future is at stake.

Why should you support I-122? Because it will help underserved voices find a platform in Seattle politics. Because our government and our city are stronger when more people are included. Because it will make clear which candidates are working for the people, and which candidates are working for special interests. Because progressive America has learned to look to Seattle for what to do next, and we need to lead on this issue. Because we are the most vibrant laboratory in American democracy, and we can’t afford to do nothing.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.