June 20, 2018

Groups want ‘Democracy Dollars’ to bolster ABQ publicly-financed candidates

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On New Mexico’s primary election day, in almost triple-digit heat, former state Senator Dede Feldman stood outside an Albuquerque middle school with a signature-filled clipboard in hand. It’s not uncommon to see people gathering signatures outside of polling locations for various political efforts. But Feldman wasn’t there to get anyone elected. The former four-term lawmaker, shaded by a wide brimmed hat, was collecting signatures to get a public campaign finance initiative on the ballot in November for Albuquerque voters.

The initiative that Feldman and others hope to get on the ballot would increase money to at least some municipal candidates in Albuquerque who take part in the city’s public financing system. A voucher system, referred to by its local proponents as Democracy Dollars, would allow Albuquerque residents to decide which publicly-financed candidates should receive more money. Inspired by the Seattle Democracy Voucher Program, Democracy Dollars would give each Albuquerque resident a voucher for $25. Residents would then allocate that $25, which comes from city funds, to the publicly-financed candidate of their choice. It’s an effort, by a coalition of advocacy groups, to replace a now defunct city process that matched money raised by candidates with public funds. The previous matching program from the city ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public money cannot be used to match money raised by candidates.

Democracy Dollars campaign manager Javier Benavidez is no stranger to publicly financed campaigns. He ran unsuccessfully as a publicly-financed Albuquerque City Council candidate in 2017. Benavidez said the voucher system would help include everyone in the city, regardless of their financial means or whether they are registered to vote.

“It’s about equity and getting everybody in Albuquerque involved,” Benavidez said.

He also acknowledged that the proposition will likely receive criticism. Benavidez himself faced an ethics complaint during his city council run, over the collection of $5 from some registered voters to qualify for public financing.

Seattle’s new system hasn’t been perfect so far. In the city’s first election using the voucher program the Seattle city attorney accused a city council candidate of using her own money instead of collecting contributions from petition signers. The city attorney eventually dropped the charges on the condition that the former candidate agreed to not participate in the voucher program in the next election.

Wayne Barnett, the executive director for Seattle’s Ethics and Elections commission, isn’t sure instances like the one in Seattle are completely avoidable. But he said imposing consequences will prevent future violations.

“I think that probably the best way to deter, is to be swift and punitive when it’s discovered,” Barnett said.

Barnett said the program has had positive impacts on Seattle’s elections, including increasing engagement, expanding diversity of engagement and limiting large donors.

“The biggest benefit is that it really was an avenue for people to raise money other than sitting in a conference room calling big donors,” Barnett said.

The push for vouchers in Albuquerque is still in its early stages. Supporters still need to turn in enough signatures to get it on the ballot and voters will still need to approve the measure. Benavidez said his group is close to meeting its self-imposed goal of turning in about 11,000 signatures into the city clerk’s office by the end of this week. The group plans is to submit 30,000 signatures, about 10,000 more than required, by the city’s July 31 deadline.