Changes proposed to Portland public campaign finance program
The Portland City Council will consider a series of changes to the city's Open and Accountable Elections public campaign finance program on Wednesday, Sept. 29.
Although the program has only been used in the 2020 elections, the changes are recommended by the citizens committee appointed to oversee it.
"Overall, the Open and Accountable Elections program performed well in the 2020 election cycle. With the recommended changes, as well as continued evaluation and updates to the program after each election cycle, the Open and Accountable Elections will be well positioned to ensure Portland's democracy is healthy and strong," the commission said in a report released on Aug. 5, 2021.
The proposed ordinance also would allow up to $10,000 per election cycle of Open and Accountable Elections funding for increasing accessibility at public candidate debates and forums.
Major recommended changes include:
• Changing the name to Small Donor Elections to reduce confusion with other campaign-finance reform initiatives.
• Increasing the 6-to-1 match on the first $50 to a 9-to-1 match on the first $20.
• Adopting rules to allow candidates to use donations in races for other offices.
• Transferring the authority to enforce the Honest Elections contribution limits approved by Portland voters from the City Auditor's Office to the program.
The program currently is housed in Commissioner Carmen Rubio's office. It is in discussion with the Portland Charter Review Commission about a ballot measure to create an independent office for it, said Director Susan Mottet.
The program was created by the council in 2018 to reduce the influence of large contributions in city elections and to increase the opportunities for candidates who prefer small donations. If candidates for mayor, commissioner or city auditor agree to contribution limits of $250 per election from individual donors, the city will match the first $50 from Portlanders 6-to-1. For example, if a resident gave a participating candidate a $25 donation, the city would provide $150 to that candidate, for a combined total of $175.
Seventeen candidates participated in the program in 2020. They raised approximately $1.41 million in matchable donations and received $2.92 million in public funds. Three of them were elected to the council — Mingus Mapps, Carmen Rubio and Dan Ryan.
The report said the program accomplished its goals during last year's election. According to the report, during the 2020 elections:
• Smaller contributions dominated campaign fundraising. The average contribution per donor fell from $1,221 in 2016 to $81 in 2020, and the median contribution plummeted from $250 per donor to $50 per donor.
• Contributors were more evenly spread across the city. Data showed that residents in lower-income and more-diverse neighborhoods gave more than they had in previous elections. Donors living in North, Northeast and East Portland were more represented in campaign giving, and a far higher percentage of donors were individuals as opposed to special interest groups.
• The program experienced a high participation rate. Two-thirds of competitive candidates chose to run with small donor matching. Six of the seven candidates who either won or made it to the runoff — and all three new city commissioners — joined the program. Mayor Ted Wheeler was the only winning candidate who did not participate in the program.
Despite that, the report said, "While the Open and Accountable Elections program's first election cycle was a success, there are areas for improvement. Public financing programs must be updated each election cycle to keep up with a constantly changing campaign finance climate. Based on the lessons learned from its operation, and feedback gathered through the user research process, numerous proposed ideas were presented for how to adjust the program. The Commission carefully considered each proposal over the course of months, engaging users and stakeholders throughout the process."
Even more candidates are likely to participate in the program in future elections. During last year's general election, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that campaign finance limits approved by Multnomah County voters were constitutional. The Honest Elections limitations include: limiting contributions to $500 per donor and permitting campaigns to take on no more than a $5,000 loan.
Many of the other recommendations to be considered by the council are intended to simplify the program. The proposed ordinance and all recommended changes can be found
The commission report can be found here.
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