Why I am a Voter-Owned Candidate

During my campaign to be elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council this Fall, I have decided to be a Voter-Owned or VOE candidate.  Voter owned programs are sometimes called public funded or clean elections.  The basic premise is that in return for a commitment to limit spending on electoral campaigns, the public provides funds to the candidate for campaign costs.  I decided to be a VOE candidate because I believe the program supports basic tenets of democracy, fairness and accessibility.

Now, I am sure that there are some who would question how fair it is to make taxpayers pay for someone else’s campaign, especially if they are not in support of that candidate.  Another way to think about it is that you are not paying for any particular person’s campaign, but for the kind of campaign where the voice of every citizen is equalized by her/his ability to participate in the democratic process.  With donations ranging from $5 to $20, giving to campaigns feels a lot more accessible than trying to buy a ticket to a $100 dollar a plate BBQ dinner.  It also means that a social worker, teacher, sanitation worker, or police officer would be able to support his/her values and beliefs at the same level as a lawyer, land developer, or business CEO.

My hope for accessibility is that if VOE campaigns become the norm, then campaigns where people spend over 3 times the amount that they would be remunerated for the position for which they are campaigning would be a thing of the past.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t know many people who would take on the huge responsibility of these positions based just on the paycheck.  But, I do think this is a way to make fundraising less of an issue when people are considering if they can make this sacrifice for their community.  And I also always want to be wary of certain communities buying access to their elected officials with big checks.

I can understand that in this time of tightening belts that some may feel that candidates should not be taking these funds.  I believe free and clean elections are an essential cost, like food and electricity.  But I also believe that during this time, even VOE candidates need to remember that they do not need to use all of their campaign grant if they do not need  it to reach the citizens during campaign season.  We won’t act like some governmental agencies who find themselves buying a year’s worth of toilet paper to empty out their budget, for fear if they don’t zero it out that money will not be available next year.  But that level of restraint by these candidates would require a commitment of restraint from non-VOE candidates to not raise the spending levels to a point where candidates have to use all of their public grant and request emergency rescue funds also.

I have said this before and I will say it again, I want my campaign to model that you do not have to be connected to powerful people with deep pockets in order to be elected.  I am in fact connected to some pretty powerful people from my days at UNC, working in the nonprofit sector, and volunteering on town committees.  And maybe some of those people have deep pockets, but I won’t know, because the most anyone will be able to give me is $20.  I know that I have an advantage because I am running as an incumbent with a record people can judge me by (did I say that was an advantage?), but I still want to model a campaign that is based on accessibility and fairness. These are some of the reasons why I will be running as a VOE candidate in the municipal elections for Chapel Hill.

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Total votes: 146

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It is important to recognize that the goal of Voter Owned Elections is not simply to reign in campaign spending but to put government back into the hands of the public.  Voter Owned Elections help to ensure that politicians are accountable to the voters and not to well-funded special interest groups that donate large sums to campaigns.  Public campaign financing also ensures that marginalized groups, such as women, minorities and low-income citizens who may not have access to special interest funding or the ability to loan themselves large sums of money still have an opportunity to participate in the electoral process.Opponents of Voter Owned Elections point out that fundraising comes with the territory of running for office and that some are uncomfortable with their tax dollars paying for the campaigns of candidates they do not support.    Campaign reform involves questioning such assumptions.  Public financing greatly reduces the amount of time candidates spend raising money, allowing them more time for serving the public through direct voter interaction.  For candidates who are not independently wealthy or cannot afford to quit their day job in order to campaign, this can make running for office an option, and will serve to diversify the pool of candidates.  As for the cost, Voter Owned Elections is expected to cost each Chapel Hill resident $1.88 during its first four years, which covers two elections.  The 2009 elections will cost each taxpayer $0.94.As a final note, the citizens of Chapel Hill should remember that Voter Owned Elections was approved overwhelmingly by the Town Council, and is supported by over 30 state-wide organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the AARP, the NC Association of Educators, and the NC Council of Churches.  Over a dozen cities and counties across the country have instituted public campaign financing and report overwhelmingly positive results.

Friday, August 5, 2011 [Durham Herald-Sun, Chapel Hill Section]Which are they, voter-owned or tax-payer-extorted elections? CHAPEL HILL CALLS its "clean-elections" local ordinance "Voter-Owned Elections."  Who could be against that?  Somebody?  Anybody?  OK, if none of you will volunteer, I guess that leaves me.Advocates of "election reform" demonize the voluntary contributions of those of means to the candidates of their choosing as "legal bribes." That wouldn't bother me so much if they didn't at the same time sanctify confiscations from those same individuals, glorifying them as "public funding."To avoid partisan bias, I will quote the co-founder and leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, Thomas Jefferson, who spoke very directly to this issue, in my view, saying, "To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."Perhaps you don't think that you agree with me – or Jefferson – on this matter.  It may help if you imagine the worst worst-case scenario for your own political leaning.  How would you like to have your money expropriated and used to fund the political campaign for Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, Hitler, or even Ronald Reagan?  Wouldn't you find that "sinful and tyrannical"?  I would – even if it went to Ronald Reagan.Principles of freedom say that I get to choose which person, party or particular ideology I support with my time, talent and treasure.  It is no more defensible to confiscate my money to promote a candidate whose politics I disbelieve than it would be to compel me to write or pass out tracts in that same candidate's defense.Imagine, I ask again, if your money was used to fund Jesse Helm's re-election campaign, would you be happy?  How would you feel if, in addition, you weren't allowed to vote?  That's how "voter-owned" elections work – and that's not their only problem.Here's a simplified rendition of how Chapel Hill’s "voter-owned" elections are supposed to work.  A candidate may choose to run using either their own campaign donations (but by local ordinance only up to $200 per donor) or by collecting a required number of signatures and campaign donations each between $5 and $20.  In 2009, candidates running for mayor needed to collect a total of between $1,500 and $4,500 from at least 150 small-dollar donors.  After qualifying, a mayoral candidate gets thousands of dollars plus rescue funds if an opponent spends more than 140% of what the “voter-owned” candidate has spentThis is supposed to "level the playing field," and "reduce the influence of outside money," and, one would assume, reduce spending overall – or else what would be the point?Well, in Chapel Hill's mayoral battle in the pre-voter-owned 2007 election, challenger Kevin Wolff spent something over $2,200, while incumbent Kevin Foy spent $3,800.In the 2009 voter-owned election, incumbent mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spent a total of $18,000 on his campaign, $9,000 of whichcame from the city's public election fund after he collected the requisite 150 small-dollar contributions.  He received an additional $4,000 in public "rescue funds" once his opponent Matt Czajkowski raised 140% of that. Czajkowski, who raised campaign funds the traditional way, that is, from his supporters, spent $36,000.So, that’s $6000 for the two candidates in 2007 and $54,000 (including $13,000 in tax dollars) for the top two candidates in 2009.  Not much of a reduction, I would say.And, it is said, "clean election" laws are supposed to keep out big donors paying "legal bribes." Well, the state Board of Elections confirmed that former Town Councilman Cam Hill (whom now-mayor Kleinschmidt’s campaign ads listed as a supporter) was responsible for a late-in-the-campaign bulk mailer sent in support of Kleinschmidt’s mayoral bid.  Hill's $1,700-plus mailing – far exceeding the $200 per donor limit – was legitimized by a political action committee created after the fact.The voter-owned-election ordinance also has been criticized as an "incumbent protection program" – probably because it is. Candidates for town council in 2009 only needed to get 83 donors to give them $10 a piece to qualify, encouraging non-viable candidates to run – thus diluting the opposition vote for all incumbents.As a council member in 2008 Kleinschmidt voted for "voter-owned" elections, then as an incumbent Chapel Hill council member Kleinschmidt used the program to finance his successful mayoral bid in 2009.  Kleinschmidt has said. “Not everyone has hundreds of dollars to give to candidates.”  But with the "voter-owned" elections ordinance in place, Kleinschmidt and the other council incumbents did.Then there's the pesky unconstitutional part.  In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a provision of that Arizona's "clean elections" law was unconstitutional. "Specifically, the Supreme Court rejected so-called 'matching funds’," said Daren Bakst of the John Locke Foundation, referencing a component of the law clearly parallel to Chapel Hill's voter-owned elections ordinance’s rescue funds.But, not to worry, the N.C. General Assembly only approved Chapel Hill's pilot program to operate for two election cycles – the second of which will be this November – and renewal is questionable at best.  For my tax dollar, it can’t be gone soon enough.Orange County resident Gary D. Gaddy cannot vote in Chapel Hill but his property and sales tax payments were used to finance candidates he would never support for any office with his vote.

Like Judges, Council of State ...  I do not support it for Chapel Hill Town Council .

It's unfortunate Mr. Gaddy didn't bother to check his facts before sending this opinion piece in. And it's more unfortunate that people will read it and think it is factual.  http://www.democracy-nc.org/concerns/voe-local.htmlhttp://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/2008/04/14/6/6-3-ch_public_...  http://townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=1715 

Candidates for town council in 2009 only needed to get 83 donors to give them $10 a piece to qualify, encouraging non-viable candidates to run – thus diluting the opposition vote for all incumbents.

This statement is neither factually accurate (it was 75 donors a piece in 2009) nor based in reality. (One candidate, who had run previously and ended up being the top finisher in the election, now qualifies as a "diluting the opposition vote" ?)

Jason,The average campaign has spent much less  than  2k , if you go back over several years .To win, one needs about 4k in votes . So, if you expect to get 4k or so in votes, one should also expect they should be able to raise 20 bucks from 100 people . Or 10 bucks from 200 people  , Or 5 bucks from 400 people . I think you see the logic .  You and I agree to disagree .I don't know if Mr. Gaddy's data is accurate . I just wanted to start some conversation on this issue .

I'm not sure what information you used to generate the $2000 figure, so I'll take your word for it. What I can tell you, though, is that in the last two election cycles, we elected three challengers. Of those three, two were traditionally financed and in order to be elected their campaigns spent an average of $15,346.30. The VOE financed challenger spent $4,825.62.In fact, I do hope to raise about $20 from 100 people, $10 from 200 people, or another reasonable approximation thereof. I expect Donna hopes to do the same. The public grant exists to make up the difference between that value (roughly $2000) and the considerably higher figure that is currently necessary to run a successful campaign as a challenger in Chapel Hill. The last two traditionally financed challengers to be elected were able to give themselves over $10,000 on average in personal loans ($17,000 and $3,2000, respectively). This may not seem like much to some, but for someone like myself whose household income was about 90% of the area median last year, that's a pretty sizable number - more than my wife and I had in our housing budget for the entire year, actually. Running that kind of campaign is simply out of reach for people like me. Hopefully, running a VOE campaign is within reach.The VOE system may not be ideal for everyone. Some candidates and their supporters can afford a traditional election, and I'm not faulting those people. But this is an experiment, in making elected office more accessible and in making democracy more transparent and more accountable to the entire community rather than just the privileged few who can afford to give maximum contributions to the candidates of their choice. Being an experiment, it will certainly take some revising to make the process better next time around, if we're able to have a next time. But I believe in making decisions based on facts and data. We don't know if Voter Owned Elections achieve their goals or not unless we try it. Let's get through this cycle and figure out what worked, what didn't, and what we need to do to make the whole election process more fair, transparent, and accessible for everyone as we move forward.

Jason,I did my research 2 years before the 2009 election . I went to the NC Board of elections website and used the data provided there .  My numbers do not include the Mayor's race , Town Council only . I did not keep it , I am working from memory . If you like, go and average the money spent in 2009 and I am guessing it will be around 3k or less . Take Laurin for example, she did not accept VOE or raise and spend big dollars and has won both times she has ran . Double check if you like, I am pretty sure she raised and spent less than 500 in 2009 . My argument is that if one knocks on enough doors and asks enough people , a candidate can raise the money they need with out using tax payer dollars .I have heard that Lee Storrow has raised over 5k already . From what I can tell he is running a grass roots campaign and is raising it from lots of donors . I don't know Lee's income, but since he is a recent grad, one can assume he is not lending himself that money . My argument still stands, if one expects between 4-5000 people to vote for them , which is what one needs to win . I know we can agree on that number  . That candidiate Should be able to get at  least 500 to  give the  candidate 20 dollars each . If one was able to do that , they would raise 10k.  Which I am sure we can agree should be enough to run most campaigns .

 If you like, go and average the money spent in 2009 and I am guessing it will be around 3k or less .

Again, I prefer to work with the actual numbers instead of guessing. I think it's important to be both precise and accurate in a discussion about numbers. In 2009, the average town council candidate spent $4,460.69, including both winners and losers. But I'm not sure why you're counting the candidates who didn't win - it don't seem that they'd particularly relevant to a question of how much it takes to run a successful campaign. While it can be cheaper for incumbents, for a non-incumbent to win (which is what you and I are hoping for) it cost an average of $7,248.34, which again was $10,275.99 for a non-VOE candidate and $4,220.69 for a voter owned candidate.

 My argument still stands, if one expects between 4-5000 people to vote
for them , which is what one needs to win . I know we can agree on that
number  .

In 2009, it took 3,574 votes to win. It was 2,932 in 2007, 3,106 in 2005, and 3,583 in 2003.

That candidiate Should be able to get at least 500 to give the candidate 20 dollars each .

I wish it worked that way, but I could find no examples in the history of Chapel Hill of town council candidates being able to raise a number of donations that even approaches that.

Is that Town Council only ? Or does it include the Mayor's race ?  Assuming accurate, then a candidate would only need 223 people at 20 dollars each .   The perecentages are about the same . A candidate only needs to have 10 % of the expected voters to give them 20 bucks .  I think you actually reinforce my argument . It just means more work for the candidate as opposed to relying on tax payer dollars . I think if we took a poll of the average Chapel Hill citizen. We have to eliminate one item form the Town Budget . Choose VOE which will help less than 10 people or eliminate the 4th of July Fireworks which the  whole Town could enjoy .  I am confident most would choose to keep the fireworks .

I understand your points and concerns re: VOE, but I think you also need to consider the Chapel Hill is a test site for the rest of the state. Personally, I think it was the wrong test site because IMHO the time commitment if elected is more of a limitation on who decides to run than campaign money. But in the rest of the state, money is a limiting factor that works against representative democracy and so from the larger perspective, I think we need to make sure VOE is successful here until the legislature agrees to make it an option for every other community in the state.

Is that Town Council only ? Or does it include the Mayor's race ? 

Town Council only. As you know, the mayor's race was an even better example of the rapidly increasing cost of local elections.

We have to eliminate one item form the Town Budget . Choose VOE which
will help less than 10 people or eliminate the 4th of July Fireworks
which the  whole Town could enjoy .

Fortunately, the budget isn't created by a public opinion poll of citizens being given false dichotomies from which to choose. VOE helps all of the citizens of Chapel Hill by strengthening our local democracy, lowering the barrier of entry to electoral participation, providing a counter to moneyed interests, and giving citizens equal say in campaigns regardless of how much they are financially able to give. VOE benefitted me in the last election, because it meant that I could afford to give contributions to two candidates that gave me equal footing with everyone else who contributed to those campaigns. But if you don't believe that's the case, creating a budget based on the number of individuals directly benefiting from each line item is no way to run a town. You certainly wouldn't take that approach in provisioning social services, would you?Maybe rather than referring making this a discussion of numbers, we should look at it as a matter of principle. Do you believe, as I do, that citizens should have equal political voice regardless of their wealth?

My main concern who are the leaders serving ?  I can see a connection between voting for VOE for yourself and voting for health care for your self in a consent agenda item .  I am running to serve and help others . I decided to run because I did not feel represented . As Leaders we must make tough decisions and our budget  as a town will have several tough decisions .     

Council voting for VOE makes incucmbents and challengers alike eligible for the funding. A consent agenda item for health care did not give health care to challengers.

Do you think that citizen should have equal political voice regardless of their political connections?

I completely agree and you put it really well, Jason. It's not either-or, and making our elected officials more accountable to more of the people in town (rather than weelthy friends, family members, and themselves) creates a democratic foundation that will lead to better government in more ways than we can count. 

Also, thankful  to Ruby and OP for providing this forum for discussion .There are many places in world where we could not have these  kind of discussions without fear .  The more openness and transparency , the better government for the people we will have .

I am not sure how I feel about VOE and am very willing to wait out this second election before deciding. I can see pros and cons. You state, "What I can tell you, though, is that in the last two election cycles, we elected three challengers." True, but that is neither an argument for or against VOE.  I don't remember the first election, but in the 2009 election, one challenger would have been elected with or without VOE because one sitting council member chose not to seek re-election. This time, we will also have at least one challenger elected because Sally Greene is not seeking re-election. When it's time to evaluate VOE, I think in addition to the criteria mentioned in Terri's post, we should consider examples of incumbents actually loosing rather than challengers winning if you want to try to answer the question of whether VOE gives incumbents even more of an advantage than they normally have. 

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any goals in the town of Chapel Hill's documentation on VOEs. But Democracy NC identifies 3 goals:1. for individuals without access to 'big money networks' to become elected officials2. Reduce special interest influence on elections and policies3. Reduction in tax breaks and special provisions that "deprive our state of more than $1 billion in revenues each year." (Personally, I don't think this goal has anything to do with local municipalities.) After this election, I believe the town will be required to report back to the legislature on the effectiveness of their program. The editorial above wants to debate the theory of VOE, but that's a waste of time. The program is in place and will stay in place through this election season (at least). So the important questions to me are is the program achieving #1 and 2 above. Are we seeing lower-income candidates running for office? Has this program taken money out of our local elections? 

http://www.chapelboro.com/pages/10857197.php?contentType=4&contentId=890...I'm still not a huge supporter this program for Chapel Hill (I think it is a solution to a non-existent problem locally), but this move by the NC BOE is enough reason to get me to work more for getting Obama re-elected -- I do not want more judges appointed who support Citzens United decision.

 

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