The upcoming November 5, 2019 election will be the first consolidated elections for the City of Albuquerque. The ballot is very lengthy and will include 4 City Council races, $127 million in city general obligation (GO) improvement bonds, continuation of a city road tax, the Albuquerque Public School Board election, a ballot measure for a continuation of a tax levy for APS school maintenance, and the CNM governing board.
The ballot also includes a “Proposition 2” which sets up a city funded voucher system to use city general funds to give out $25 vouchers to voters who in turn will give the vouchers to candidates they support.
This blog article is an examination and analysis “Democracy Dollars”.
DEMOCRACY DOLLARS BALLOT QUESTION
The ballot question is as follows:
Shall the City of Albuquerque adopt the following amendments to update the language of the Open and Ethical Elections Code, which provides for public financing of City candidates: provide eligible city residents with Democracy Dollars, to contribute to their choice of qualified candidates, which the candidates could redeem with the City Clerk, up to a limit, for funds to spend in support of their campaigns, as directed by the City Council, and increase the funds for publicly financed mayoral candidates?
A yes vote is a vote in favor of creating a program called Democracy Dollars that would provide eligible city residents with $25 vouchers that they can give to a participating candidate.
A no vote is a vote against creating a program called Democracy Dollars.
BACKGROUND ON DEMOCRACY DOLLARS
The Democracy Dollars is a voucher program modeled after the Seattle, Washington voucher program that offers Seattle residents to participate in local government by supporting campaigns or supporting those running for office themselves. In Seattle, all registered voters and eligible Seattle residents who apply receive four $25 Democracy Vouchers by mail. You can read more on the Seattle program at this link:
Albuquerque’s “Democracy Dollars” proposition is the result of a 2018 successful petition drive to put it on the ballot for a vote. Signatures from registered city voters were secured to get the measure on the ballot. In August 2018, proponents of the measure attempted to have the Bernalillo County Commission place Democracy Dollars on the November 6, 2018 general election ballot. It was totally discretionary and the responsibility of the Bernalillo County Commission to put the measure on the November 6, 2018. However, the County Commission voted not to place it on the November 6, 2018 ballot thereby requiring the city to place the measure on the November 5, 2019 municipal election ballot. For more see:
Approval of Proposition 2 would set up Democracy Dollars, a program to provide eligible Albuquerque residents with a $25 taxpayer-funded coupon to give to an eligible candidate of their choosing in a city election. The funds would be added to those provided by the city’s current public finance system should a candidate qualify.
Proponents of Dollars for Democracy argue that it will encourage more people to register to vote and more varied and diverse candidates will run for office who normally do not run or who cannot raise the necessary funding for a campaign. Proponents also argue Democracy Dollars will have the benefit of candidates directly contacting and discuss issues that affect them. Democracy Dollars does not require recipients be registered voters, just city residents.
NEW MEXICO “ANTI DONATION CLAUSE” : DEMOCRACY DOLLARS VERSUS CITY PUBLIC FINANCE
The New Mexico Constitution strictly prohibits donations to individuals by governmental entities. The provision provides in pertinent part:
“Neither the state nor any county, school district or municipality, except as otherwise provided in this constitution, shall directly or indirectly lend or pledge its credit or make any donation to or in aid of any person, association or public or private corporation … .” (N.M. Const. art. IX, § 14.)
Advocates for “Democracy for Dollars” cite the success of such programs in other states and municipalities such as Seattle, Washington. This is a bogus argument in that it does not take into account New Mexico’s anti-donation clause.
The city’s existing public financing law does not violate the anti-donation clause for the reason that the public finance is not just a donation for nothing in return as is “Democracy Dollars”. A candidate must collect 3,000 qualifying $5.00 from registered Albuquerque voters, not just residents, and once qualified, the candidate has to agree in writing not to solicit, collect or spend any more money from other source and agree that the city money given is a cap. In other words, there is a contract and a bargain for exchange, not a donation of public money.
It is highly likely that in the event that the “Dollars for Democracy” passes, it will be challenged in court as a violation of the New Mexico Anti Donation clause in the New Mexico constitution. The language of art. IX, Section 14, is very clear when it states “neither the state nor any county, … or municipality … shall directly or indirectly … make any donation to or in aid of any person, association or public or private corporation ” The “Democracy Dollars” $25 vouchers are clearly a donation and aide to people given to them to give to another. This is the very type of activity the anti-donation clause was designed to prohibit. Yet if Democracy for Dollars is enacted, the city will have to defend the program in court.
FINANCIAL HIT TO CITY TAXPAYERS
With Democracy Dollars, all qualified residents, not just registered voters, would be given the vouchers. There is no clarification as to the age requirement of a resident to qualify for the $25 voucher. The estimated 2019 population of Albuquerque is 558,000. With no age qualification, the cost of the “Dollars for Democracy” would be approximately $13,950,000 (558,000 X $25 = $13,950,000.)
The issuance of $25 vouchers to all city “registered voters” will result in a financial liability far above and beyond what is already in the city budget for publicly financed candidates. To print and implement a voucher system for registered voters will result in a minimum financial exposure to the city of $9 million dollars. (360,000 registered voters X $25 voucher = $9 million).
It is not that difficult to calculate the minimum fiscal impact of Democracy Dollars would have on the City’s General Fund by looking at the 2017 Mayoral election.
In 2017, there were where 8 candidates on the ballot before there was a run off. Combined, all 8 candidates received 52,491 total votes. Assuming that each of the 8 candidates were able to secure $25 in Democracy Dollars from those who voted for them, the taxpayer cost to the city to finance their candidacies would have been $1,312,275. The only candidate to qualify for public finance in 2017 was Tim Keller. When you add $506,254 in public finance Keller was given, the amount of out of pocket public financing distributed would have been $1,818,529. The average cost to the city to run the election is also $1.3 million. Therefore, the total cost of the 2017 election would have been $3,118,529.
FEDERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTION LAWS
Under the proposed “Democracy Dollars” system proposed, $25 vouchers will be given or mailed to all eligible residents, which will include those who are not registered voters and who get the $25 vouchers by applying to the City Clerk.
It is not clear if foreign nationals will also be given the $25 vouchers to donate to candidates. 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.
To be blunt, in the political world, the $25 Democracy Dollars voucher system sets up a public finance system that can be very easily abused and undermined by any nefarious candidate or measured finance committees to solicit the vouchers. Enforcement to prevent violations of campaign finance laws will also be a major hurdle and costly to the city. The $25 voucher system being proposed can be very easily abused and undermined by anyone who decides to go around and just buy the voucher’s outright from voter 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.
WARPED VIEW OF DEMOCRACY
The “Democracy Dollars” system is touted as a “voucher” system to allow the city to donate $25-dollar redeemable vouchers to all “qualified” city residents who are less fortunate to make money donations on their own to a candidate of their choosing like those who can afford to make donations on their own. This is a somewhat warped interpretation of democracy. It equates political donations as the only meaningful way to participate in the election political process. It also does not take into account those circumstances where a person wants to donate to 2 or more candidates which is often the case with people who want to “hedge” their bets on a winner. Those who cannot afford to make political donations can and usually do get very involved with campaigns and volunteer time and “sweat equity” to campaigns on a grass root level. The hallmark of city elections is “door to door” campaigns to ask for a vote and support, not just money.
A real unintended consequence of “Democracy Dollars” will be to add yet another difficult layer of campaign solicitation effort by candidates on top of an already very cumbersome process to collect $5.00 qualifying donations that sets up most candidates for failure. Candidates will be soliciting not only the $5.00 donations but the $25 city issued coupons that are in reality a city subsidized contribution being called a “block grant” from taxpayers.
It is very misleading to call citizens who are not able to make monetary contribution under the present system to be referred to as “small donors” when giving their $25 voucher to a candidate when the funding source for the voucher is the city general fund.
“DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR” MATCH NEEDED
Albuquerque’s public finance laws are way too difficult to qualify for public financing in that in the very last 2 Mayor elections, only 2 candidates out of 19 candidates actually qualified for public financing. The “Democracy for Dollars” plan has absolutely no impact on the effects of measured finance committees and the unlimited amount of money they can raise and spend on behalf or even against a candidate.
It is going to take a hell of a lot more than a voucher system and significantly more changes to put public financing directly in the hands of voters, especially with the existence of Citizens United in order to level the political donation playing field.
The “Democracy Dollars” are really “free vouchers” provided by the city to voters in an apparent attempt to supplement the $5.00 qualifying donations to the city that are now required to secure public financing. Free vouchers defeat the intent and purpose of public finance campaigns.
Every effort should be made to make Albuquerque’s public financing laws for municipal elections to legally provide for a “dollar for dollar” match to privately raised funds by candidates, thereby providing a real level playing field.
The influence of big money in elections allowed by the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United is destroying our democracy. Many highly qualified candidates for office all too often do not bother to run because of the inability or difficulty raising the necessary money to run.
Political campaign fundraising and big money influence are warping our election process. Money spent becomes equated with the final vote. Money drives the message, affects voter turnout and ultimately the outcome of an election.
“Democracy for Dollars” is a pathetic attempt to supplement the $5.00 qualifying donations to secure public finance from the city. The voucher system will be funded by financing from the general fund, so there is nothing free about it. To say that Democracy Dollars will encourage more people to register and vote is a real stretch of the political imagination.
Albuquerque municipal elections need campaign finance reform and enforcement and not just another pool or trough of money candidates can drink from.
VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION 2 “DEMOCRACY DOLLARS”
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.
You can read the complete blog article here: