The Bernalillo County Commissioners voted by 3-2 not to add the “Democracy Dollars” initiative on the November general election ballot.
Supporters had predicted that the measure would pass by a 4-1 vote and placed on the ballot by the County Commission.
A minimum of 19,480 signatures from registered city voters were required on the petition for ballot placement and consideration by commissioners.
Advocates for the measure had submitted a petition with more than 28,000 signatures to the City Clerk’s Office.
It was totally discretionary and the responsibility of the Bernalillo County Commission to put the measure on the November 6, 2018.
Democrat Steven Quezada and Republicans Lonnie Talbert and James Smith voted against adding the question on the November ballot, while Democrats Debbie O’Malley and Maggie Hart Stebbins voted to put it on the ballot.
The proposal would have directed the Albuquerque City Council to establish an ordinance providing for issuance and redemption of $25 coupons as donations to candidates for city elections.
The proposal would have also change the date for municipal elections from its usual October date to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November on odd-numbered years.
The measure had it passed in November general election by all county voters would have instructed the Albuquerque City Council to amend is campaign finance law providing for public finance campaigns, which is strictly a city of Albuquerque system for its municipal elections.
Bernalillo County does not have any form of public finance for any of its elected officials.
The proposal would have directed the Albuquerque City Council to establish an ordinance providing for issuance and redemption of the coupons.
The City’s public finance system was enacted by city voters in 2005 in a municipal election and it was a City Council initiative.
Under the Democracy for Dollars proposal, all registered city voters and all residents, would be given $25 Democracy Dollars coupons issued by the city to contribute to their choice of qualified candidates.
Under the system proposed, $25 vouchers will be given or mailed to all registered voters.
Eligible residents who were not registered voters could have also obtained the $25 vouchers by applying to the City Clerk.
Municipal candidates would then redeem the dollars with the city clerk, up to a limit, for funds to spend in support of their municipal campaigns.
Under a successful City Charter amendment, the amount for mayoral candidates would have increased to $1.75 per voter.
Under the system, City Council candidates who take public financing receive $1 per voter in their district, usually around $30,000 to $45,000.
Mayoral candidates get approximately $380,000 and if they make it into a runoff another $118,000.
Notwithstanding the city public finance laws, measured finance committees are allowed to solicit and spend unlimited amounts of money.
FEDERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTION LAWS
It is no clear from the petition if undocumented residents will also have the right to apply for the $25 vouchers, an if so, it would violate federal campaign finance laws.
Section 52 U.S. Code § 30121 of the federal statutes governs contributions and donations by foreign nationals to candidates for office or political campaigns and states:
“PROHIBITION: It shall be unlawful for—
(1) a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make—
(A) a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to contribute or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election;
(B) a contribution or donation to a committee of a political party; or
(C) an expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement for an electioneering communication (within the meaning of section 30104(f)(3) of this title); or
(2) [It shall be unlawful for] a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.
(b)“FOREIGN NATIONAL” DEFINED: As used in this section, the term “foreign national” means: a foreign principal, as such term is defined by section 611(b) of title 22, except that the term “foreign national” shall not include any individual who is a citizen of the United States; or
(2) an individual who is not a citizen of the United States or a national of the United States … [as defined by federal statute] and who is not lawfully admitted for permanent residence, as defined by [federal statute] … ”
Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules and regulations defines individuals who are considered “foreign nationals” and are subject to the prohibition to include foreign citizens, not including dual citizens of the United States, and immigrants who are not lawfully admitted for permanent residence.
The $25-dollar coupons or vouchers called “Democracy for Dollars” clearly have a value once redeemed and fall within the definition “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value.”
Foreign nationals who knowingly and willfully engage in the prohibited activities of donating to candidates for office or political campaigns may be subject to an FEC enforcement action, criminal prosecution, or both.
REACTION TO COUNTY COMMISION VOTE
Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, had this to say about the County Commission vote:
“We’re really disappointed that the county commission decided to take an action tonight that was against the wishes and will of 28,000 of their constituents. … Every single one of the residents of Albuquerque are their constituents here in the county, and that was silencing their voices. It was incredibly disappointing to hear.”
County Commissioners expressed concerns about the proposal, especially about how the coupons would be tracked, used and distributed.
After the county commission meeting, Democrat Steve Quezada had this to say:
“I think that public financing is important, especially to Democrats who don’t have access to a lot of dollars. … I [also] think we need to look at how that’s done and how that’s structured. There were too many holes. I had too many questions, and why am I making a decision that the city councilors aren’t doing? I hate to throw them under the bus, but really, this is their decision. I feel bad because [the election advocates] worked really hard, and I’m sad that it’s going to be further down the road, but we still have public financing in place.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
“Democracy Dollars” was seriously flawed from the get go as outlined in this blog article:
There are 4 major points the majority of Bernalillo County Commission picked up on about “Democracy Dollars that were clear flaws:
1. The Bernalillo County Commission would be involved with a decision that instructed the Albuquerque City Council to amend its public finance laws that were enacted in a 2005 municipal election amending the City Charter.
2. The $25 vouchers are to be mailed or given to all registered voters as well as any resident of the city who is not a registered voter but who applies for a voucher.
3. The issuance of $25 vouchers to all city residents of the city and not just registered voters would result in a financial liability far above and beyond what is already in the city budget for publicly financed candidates.
4. The $25 voucher system proposed could be very easily abused and undermined by a candidate who decides to go around and just buy the voucher’s outright from residents at a lesser cost of say $5 to $10 for an example and then turn the purchased voucher into the city to collect the full $25.
The “Democracy Dollars” are really “free vouchers” provided to all city to residents in an apparent attempt to supplement the $5.00 qualifying donations from registered voters to the city that are now required to secure public financing.
The entire public finance system enacted by city voters in 2005 needs to be completely over hauled to make it easier for candidates to qualify for public financing, especially the collection of the $5.00 qualifying donations.
Getting on the municipal ballot and qualifying for public finance is by far where the problems are with the existing system as are the influence of “measured finance” committees.
On January 2, 2018, I posted my blog article with recommendations for changes to the City’s public finance and election code laws.
Following is a listing of the recommendations:
1. Allow four (4) months and two (2) weeks, from January 1 to May 15, to collected both the qualifying donations and petition signatures, and private campaign donation collection.
2. Allow the collection of the qualifying donations from anyone who wants, and not just residents or registered voters of Albuquerque. Privately finance candidates now can collect donations from anyone they want and anywhere in the State and Country.
3. Once the allowed number of qualifying donations is collected, the public financing would be made immediately available, but not allowed to be spent until starting May 15.
4. Permit campaign spending for both publicly financed and privately financed candidates only from May 15 to the October election day.
5. Return to candidates for their use in their campaign any qualifying donations the candidate has collected when the candidate fails to secure the required number of qualifying donations to get the public financing.
6. Mandate the City Clerk to issue debit card or credit card collection devices to collect the qualifying donations and to issue receipts and eliminate the mandatory use of “paper receipts”.
7. Increase from $1.00 to $2.50 per registered voter the amount of public financing, which will be approximately $900,000, and allow for incremental increases of 10% every election cycle keeping up with inflation.
8. Allow for additional matching public financing available for run offs at the rate of $1.25 per registered voter, or $450,000.
9. Albuquerque should make every effort to make municipal elections partisan elections to be held along with State and Federal elections by seeking a constitutional amendment from the legislature to be voted upon by the public.
10. Any money raised and spent by measured finance committees on behalf a candidate should be required to first be applied to reimburse the City for any taxpayer money advanced to a public finance candidate or deducted from a publicly financed candidates account and returned to the city.
11. City of Albuquerque campaign reporting and finance ordinances and regulations need to define with absolute clarity that strictly prohibit the coordination of expenditures and campaign activities with measured finance committees and individual candidate’s campaigns in municipal elections.
12. A mandatory schedule of fines and penalties for violations of the code of ethics and campaign practices act should be enacted by the City Council.
The “Democracy for Dollars” initiative was a pathetic attempt at campaign finance reform.
Common Cause and Democracy for Dollar’s missed the mark totally by promoting just another way for candidates for office to collect donations for their campaigns instead of promoting meaningful campaign and election reform for our municipal elections.
Rather than condemning the County Commission for not going along with them with Democracy Dollars, Common Cause should approach Mayor Tim Keller and the Albuquerque City Council and demand a complete overhaul of the city’s campaign finance law and of the election code.
FOR MORE ON REFORMING CITY CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAWS SEE: