A Short History of Fix Democracy First's Work on Money in Politics

In 2001 a group of Washington citizens, inspired by the advent of public funding for elections in Arizona and Maine, began working to create a public funding system for elections in Washington State.  They reasoned that politicians tend to represent those who underwrite their election campaigns.  Therefore, publicly funded elections would enable politicians to serve the general public not wealthy individuals, corporations and special interests.  The group organized as Washington Public Campaigns, a non-profit dedicated specifically to the creation of publicly funded elections in Washington State.  

As it turned out, there had already been a program for public funding of city council elections in Seattle during the early 1980’s.   And King county council also had a public funding option in the late 1980’s.  Unfortunately, in 1991 House Initiative 134 was passed.  This was a reaction to the impact of money in politics that included campaign contribution limits and disclosure requirements but also banned any expenditure of public funds on election campaigns.   A close reading of the initiative language suggests that it was intended to prohibit incumbents from using the resources of their office to underwrite their upcoming election campaigns.  But it was written broadly and had implications beyond that.  As a result, Washington went from being possibly the first state to have public funding for any of its elections to being the only state with an across the board prohibition of public funding of elections.  So, in addition to spreading the word about public funding of elections, the first mission of Washington Public Campaigns was to repeal this prohibition.  In 2008 this mission was accomplished, just in time for the 2008 financial collapse that made public funding of elections literally unthinkable.  

Then, in 2010 the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs FEC and the DC Appellant Court’s decision in Speech Now vs the FEC poured gasoline on the fire of big money’s influence on our electoral system.  Citizens United freed corporations to spend directly from the corporate treasury on efforts to influence elections.  And Speech Now created super PACS, which can receive donations of unlimited size and often anonymized by PAC to PAC transfer of funds.  Washington Public Campaigns had to broaden its mission to include responding to these new problems.  This broadened mission suggested a new organizational name that more clearly described the nature and priority of our work.  After a lot of deliberation, we changed the name to Fix Democracy First, indicating our underlying assumption that none of the visible ill effects of money’s influence on our government would be fixed until our democracy itself was fixed.

Beginning in 2011 we led the effort to get Washington State’s legislature to issue a memorial resolution in support of a 28th amendment to the US Constitution that would clarify that corporations do not have rights guaranteed under the Constitution and that spending money on election campaigns is not the equivalent of speech and can, therefore, be regulated by Congress and the States.   After three frustrating years, we opted to go around the legislature by conducting an initiative.  Joining with other organizations, notably the Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution or WAmend, we played a key role in the successful passage of I-735 in 2016.  The initiative passed by 63% and expressed the support of the citizens of Washington State for a constitutional amendment as described above.   We continue to press our federal senators and representatives to act as their constituents have directed them to.

Meanwhile, after the repeal of Washington State’s prohibition of public funding, Fix Democracy First joined with Fair Elections Seattle to press for the creation of a publicly funded path to the Seattle City Council.  In 2016 Seattle created a program for publicly funding city council elections that included providing every Seattle voter with $100 in vouchers that could be donated to candidates opting to run with public funding.   The program has been immensely successful with widespread utilization and has resulted in much more competitive campaigns, more citizen involvement and greater diversity on the Seattle City Council.  

But despite its other clear benefits, public funding itself has not stemmed the trend of increasingly expensive election campaigns in Seattle. Something else needs to be done.  Super PACs have been the means by which unlimited money from powerful special interests has entered the electoral process.  This is a nationwide problem.  Many believe that a constitutional amendment is necessary to correct the problem of big money in politics.  But removing the corrupting opportunity presented by Super PACs would be a huge step in the right direction and this will not necessarily require an amendment.  Fix Democracy First, working with Free Speech for People, is currently involved in a project that just may result in the end of super PACs nationwide.  We are working with Seattle councilperson Lorena Gonzales to have Seattle adopt an ordinance limiting the size of donations that can be made to independent PACs involved in Seattle city council races.  If passed it will most likely be challenged in court. Free Speech for People has arranged pro bono representation for Seattle all the way to the Supreme Court.  There is good reason to believe that SCOTUS will uphold Seattle’s ordinance.  The lower court’s ruling is based on both logical and legal errors, flies in the face of decades of precedent, and the specific issue involved in the Speech Now ruling has never actually been heard by the highest court in the land.

Fix Democracy First continues to work toward a system in which citizens’ voices in government are not dependent upon their financial resources; corporations cease to dominate the creation of government policy; and all eligible citizens are able to participate in a government that serves the well being of the general public.

For examples of Fix Democracy First’s projects related to money in politics, see documents on our website relating to I-735, HR 48, Clean Elections Seattle, and Seattle Initiative 122.

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