Portland City Council Passes Open & Accountable Elections

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  • Kate Titus

The Portland city council passed “Open & Accountable Elections” today, a reform aimed at curbing special interest money in city elections and making city government more representative and accountable to the voters.

“Portlanders have had enough of big-money politics,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon.  “We’re opening up a pathway for more representative local government, reflective of and responsive to all our diverse communities.”

Open & Accountable Elections empowers candidates to run for office without taking large campaign contributions. Instead candidates can fuel their campaigns with small-dollar contributions from local city residents, matched with limited public funds. Candidates who participate agree to accept no more than $250 from any single contributor. Local city residents can have their small campaign contributions matched 6-to-1 up to the first $50, making every voice count. The matching funds system is voluntary, but includes stronger accountability and transparency requirements for all candidates, whether or not they choose to participate.

Open & Accountable Elections is modeled after similar programs in other communities, including in big cities like New York City and Los Angeles, smaller ones across New Mexico, and states such as Connecticut, Arizona, and Maine. “What we’ve seen in other cities,” says Titus, “is that this reform allows for a more diverse and representative candidate pool. Talented people can run viable campaigns, relying on broad community support instead of a narrow political donor class. Moreover this approach incentivizes candidates to campaign and govern differently, to reach out beyond a single narrow zip code area into all parts of the city.”

Portland is the fourth city or state to pass a form of public campaign financing this year, joining Berkeley, California, Howard County, Maryland, and South Dakota. The California legislature also voted this year to remove its ban on local citizen funded elections. Seattle, Maine, and Montgomery County, Maryland have also instituted public financing programs in recent years.

In rare cases, candidates have won Portland elections without a big money advantage, such as in the recent election of Chloe Eudaly. However, such cases are the exception, and candidates face enormous pressure to look to the city’s wealthy political donor class for support. Only 8 women, 2 people of color, and 2 people from the outer east side of the city have ever been elected to Portland city office.

Over 30 community organizations worked together with Common Cause to pass this reform. This includes: Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon; Association of Retired People of Oregon, Oregon; Bernie PDX; CAUSA Oregon; Coalition of Communities of Color; Color PAC; Communications Workers of America, Local 7901; Democracy Spring Oregon; Every Voice; Latino Network; League of Women Voters of Portland; Main Street Alliance of Oregon; NAACP Portland Branch 1120; Move to Amend PDX; OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon; Oregon League of Conservation Voters; Oregon State Public Interest Research Group; Oregon Student Association; Oregon Walks; Oregon Working Families Party; PDX Forward; Rose Community Development; Represent Portland; SEIU Oregon State Council; The Bus Project; The Urban League of Portland; Unite Oregon; UFCW, Local 555; Western States Center; 350PDX; 1000 Friends of Oregon.

“This is a tremendous victory for the people of Portland. We thank Commissioner Fritz for championing this reform, and Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick for their leadership,” Titus said. “Portland has sent a clear message to the entire state: the people want a democracy that works for all of us. Common Cause will continue to press for comprehensive statewide campaign finance reform in the legislature in 2017.”