Report: Democracy For The People

The Outsized Influence of Big Money in Seattle's Elections

How Honest Elections Seattle Can Empower Regular Voters
Released by: WashPIRG

Executive Summary

The role of money in elections is typically discussed in the context of high profile races such as those for President, Congress, or Governor, but big money from a tiny sliver of wealthy donors has an outsized role even in cities like Seattle.  The influence of money in smaller races like City Council is often underestimated.  

This report looks at political giving in Seattle’s first district elections – the August 4, 2015 primary.  We found that:

 

  • A very small percentage of elite donors, those giving contributions of $500 or more, provides the majority of funding in city races,
  • Big donors outside Seattle are a major source of funding for city races, and 
  • Small donors, giving contributions of $100 or less, an amount that an average Seattleite can afford, provide a small share of the money raised in city campaigns.  

More than half of the $2.5 million raised by candidates came from 1,589 contributors whose individual contributions were worth $500 or more.  Candidates raised roughly one-fifth of all funds from 596 non-resident donors giving $500 or more.  Of all contributions given up to August 4, 2015, 32 percent were from donors who live outside of Seattle; 14 percent were from out-of-state donors.

Only 18 percent of the money raised by all Seattle city council candidates leading up to the August 4 primary came from small donors giving $100 or less.  In other words, some 82 percent of the money raised by candidates came from contributions of more than $100.  

On issue after issue at the local, state and federal level, politicians often favor the donors who funded their campaigns over the people they are elected to represent.  If candidates can turn to a pool of roughly 1,600 donors, a significant percentage of whom aren’t even constituents, to fund the bulk of their campaign, what does that mean for the hundreds of thousands of Seattleites who didn’t give, many of whom couldn’t afford a contribution of more than $100?

If campaigns relied on small donors for financing, candidates would be encouraged to engage a large number of voters in the political process and would focus on appealing to a broad swath of the population they seek to represent.

Democracy works best when our representatives are focused on their constituents, not just an elite class of donors.  Imagine a system in which more constituents were contributing to their elected officials, and 75 or even 90 percent of contributions were coming from constituents giving $100 or less, in $10, $25 or $50 contributions - amounts that the average person in Seattle might be able to afford.  

Honest Elections Seattle, or Initiative 122, would improve our democracy by creating such a system.  If approved, this initiative would lower contribution limits, decreasing the outsized role of large donors, while incentivizing more small donors and encouraging candidates to engage these donors, and likely a greater percentage of their constituents.  

Ultimately, these reforms will help to return democracy to the people, empowering more people rather than an elite class of donors.

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