Transparent and Equal Access Elections

WHY  It is often said that money buys elections.  In a way that is true, and in a way it is not.  Ultimately, money buys access to voters, and the individual with the most access is often the winner of a particular race.  However, this lack of access extends beyond access to individuals.  Some organizations will refuse to include candidates with limited funds in debates or other public forums.  And some organizations will tell you they think you will be an excellent elected official some day, but sometimes they have to go with the person who they think is going to win, which is code for, you don’t have any money, but so and so has a lot, and we think they will win.

We must also recognize that elections are more than electing individuals to public office.  It is also an opportunity to assess the state of the city from the public’s perspective — a report card on how we are doing and what is working and what is not working.  Each individual brings a unique perspective on numerous issues.  By not ensuring equal access, we may not hear of an important aspect of an issue that should be included in the discussion.  It is of benefit to everyone that all voices are heard and the public has access to all voices and candidates.

The current publicly supported elections program, Open and Accountable Elections, was approved by City Council.  It was designed by government and was not vetted or voted on by Portlanders.  For publicly owned elections to truly work, it must be designed, vetted, and voted on by the public.

HOW  So, how do we make sure candidates and Portlanders have equal access to each other?  Do we give candidates money and let each create their own individual pathway to access, or do we just provide them with access?

If each candidate qualifies for campaign finance support from the Open and Accountable Elections program and is provided matching funds to construct their own individual pathway for access, each election could potentially cost millions of dollars with no assurance of even a minimum standard of equal access.  However, the cost is greatly reduced and a high standard of access is guaranteed if government provides that access.  Government is already charged with running elections and providing access is not that big of a leap from existing election oversight.

Furthermore, predicating public campaign support on how much money a candidate is able to raise is not the answer.  Currently, even with the small donor requirement, the system is still set up so that those connected to money and others in power have a much better chance of success than those who are more connected to the community.  We need to flip this, so that our public officials are deeply connected to the community, and less to money and power.

Portlanders have the sole right to design government structures, including public elections support, to reflect its goals and values.  The Charter Commission is the best way to do this and it must be seated again by or before January 1, 2021, so the opportunity to begin the public design and vetting is ahead — much sooner, if enough pressure can be placed on City Council to not wait until the last City Council meeting the year before as was done with the 2011 Charter Commission.  For information about the Charter Commission, please see the Position Paper on it.

WHAT  Providing access can mean any number of things.  Possible options might include:

• support with graphic design of print and electronic materials and loading of content to their campaign site location

• creation and management of public forums across the City; formats could range from traditional issue-specific debates, to open mic question and answer, to neighborhood-specific events, among others 

• design and production of campaign print materials candidates can use when tabling at program events or canvassing

• management of all donations, accounting, and state-level campaign finance reporting

• provide general legal education and access to City lawyers for legal questions they may have about issues

• set up and instruction on social media platforms

• assistance with voters pamphlet and other content submissions and ensuring timely submission to all

• translation of all materials to any language requested by Portlanders

• arrangement of community election night events around the City

Transparent and Equal Access Elections should also have requirements and limitations for participation.  This might include:

• a to-be-determined number of signatures collected from Portlanders who support a candidates inclusion on the ballot and participation in the public elections program; no fundraising necessary to participate

• no contributions over $50

• no endorsements other than green, red, or yellow light

• no endorsements from other elected officials

• no participation in public forums that do not invite or include all candidates of that race

This document created by Mark White and made possible by the Mark for Portland 2020 campaign.