Clean elections. Oregon Campaign Finance Reform will take multiple solutions

In a recent Oregonlive opinion, Knute Buehler advocated that in lieu of campaign contribution limits Oregon adopt a “Peoples Pledge” Buehler once a longtime advocate of contribution limits said:

Contribution limits, which Brown is advocating for now and I supported in the past, will not solve this problem, but rather make our campaign finance system worse. Dollars would instead flow away from (mostly) transparent candidate campaigns to shadowy organizations, surfacing as independent expenditures

The Peoples Pledge is a voluntary contract between candidates to limit overall campaign spending and diminish the value of independent expenditures. The agreement doesn’t just rely on promises. The contract requires a candidate to donate some percentage of any independent expenditure made on behalf of a candidate to a charity that the candidate may choose. That threat of depleting funds directly from the candidate campaigns caused many PACS from getting involved in the races.

Two weeks later Patrick Starnes, the 2018 nominee for Governor of the Independent Party of Oregon who dropped out of the election days before election day to endorse Governor Kate Brown, argued in his own Oregonlive opinion piece that Buehler’s People Pledge was not a solution because it wasn’t enforceable. They’re both right. Though neither go far enough.

Clean Elections

Effective Campaign finance reform will require multiple reforms including the People’s Pledge, contribution limits, small donor match program and robust disclosures on ads showing their true source of funding. That bundle of reforms would create an Oregon clean election regimen.

The People’s Pledge

has been effective where used. In the Elizabeth Warren Scott Brown US Senate race in Massachusetts the People’s Pledge was effective. We could enhance it’s effectiveness by including provisions that allowed recognition for candidates who took the People’s Pledge. Particularly recognition in the Voters Pamphlet so that voters could compare candidates side by side. and make their own informed choices.

Campaign contribution limits

are a good tool to reduce the costs of campaigns. There is correlation between States that have no or very limited campaign contribution limits have more expensive elections. More expensive elections means the monied interests will have more power in the political process and elected officials will spend more of their valuable time raising campaign cash.

Matching Programs/Clean Elections Programs

Small donor matching programs offer two improvements. First they reduce the need for large donations. If a candidate can go to a house party, and raise $50 from 10 people, that $500 could be matched and equal to a $3,500 donation from a single big donor. While there have been some abuses of matching programs in the past, overall, matching programs have worked well.

The second advantage is that a matching program reduces the barrier to entry. More grass roots candidates will become economically viable with matching funds. More candidates means more contested elections which means that the special interest money will need to be spread around to more candidates making all elections more competitive.

True Source of Funding Disclosures

While Oregon has a good campaign finance disclosure system (ORESTAR), it’s far from perfect, our reporting requirements allow donors to delay filing, and dark money is still a problem. We need to require all political advertising to list it’s top five sponsors. And their real identities, not “the committee for everything that’s good”. There is an Oregon Attorney General opinion from the 1990’s that claims the Oregon Constitution bans true source of funding disclosures on ads and Oregon Politicians have been using that opinion to avoid disclosures. That opinion has never been tested by courts as Politicians refuse to pass legislation contrary to that opinion.

The Challenges

Contribution limits and Disclosure reforms will require amending the Oregon constitution to allow limits and disclosures. They will also require new statutes to actually create the limits and disclosure requirements. Hopefully, the Democrats in this Legislature will follow through on their stated commitment to campaign finance reform and refer a constitutional amendment to the voters. But it won’t be easy. Democratic campaigns are now largely funded by dark money groups like Our Oregon who oppose contribution limits and disclosures, and Democratic funded groups like the Bus Project are dark money groups themselves. It’s that political and financial environment that has stymied reforms for years.

We don’t need a constitutional change to enact the People’s Pledge or a small donor matching program. The People’s pledge in fact would cost almost nothing, so even with a modest improvement in political culture, it could have a large return on investment. Plus I like the idea of having all the People’s Pledge candidates in the Voters Pamphlet with a little seal of approval on their photo. There is no logical reason anyone should oppose the People Pledge just because it doesn’t solve the entire money in politics problem. The Small donor program would be opposed by those who claim that it forces taxpayers to pay for political speech that they don’t agree with. But the fact is, we do that all the time. Non Democratic and Republican voters pay for a primary election where they can’t even participate. We all pay for the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Salem. And the truth is, if we can free our elected officials from the yoke of special financial interest money, that’s the very best investment I can think of.

The last thing reformers should be doing is arguing about which of the reforms are the best, or which are most effective. All reforms have their shortcomings, because it’s a complicated problem. Therefore it needs multiple solutions that together create an environment where our elected officials are able to prioritize the voters priorities.

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