The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Publicly funded campaigns haven’t lived up to expectations anywhere. Why would they in D.C.?


How would you like to be forced to pay for the campaign of a politician you disagree with?

The D.C. Council and mayoral elections are more than a year away, but fundraising has already begun. And rather than rely solely on willing donors, some on the council want to force all district residents to become campaign donors.

The proposal would create public funding for candidates in the 2018 council and mayoral elections. The scheme works by providing matching funds for candidates if they reached certain thresholds of support, including a minimum number of donors and a minimum amount of money before qualifying for matching funds.

The purported objectives for the public financing of campaigns are to reduce the influence of larger donors, give smaller candidates a greater chance of succeeding and reduce corruption — something D.C. politics has seen its share of.

Recent results from public financing schemes across the country haven’t matched the rhetoric.

Seattle, the most recent city to implement public financing by way of “democracy vouchers,” saw disappointing results from its program.

Every city resident received four $25 vouchers that can be given to any candidate. Once candidates have received contributions from 400 Seattle residents whose signatures are verified by election officials, candidates can trade the vouchers for cash, paid for by a $3 million tax on property owners.

Instead of helping lesser-known candidates, as supporters said it would, the vouchers simply propped up incumbents and those who already had substantial fundraising apparatuses.

Of the $315,000 awarded for the primary election, the majority went to three candidates; one was an incumbent and the other two were politically connected activists.

Lesser-known candidates may have actually been harmed by the lure of vouchers because they proved to be a time- and resource-wasting distraction.

Hisam Goueli, a doctor and political novice, spent the majority of his time trying to meet the qualifications for vouchers instead of campaigning for city council.

Rather than reaching out to his friends and family who could have funded his campaign – many of whom live out-of-state – he opted for vouchers. Because he accepted vouchers, all his campaign contributions had to come from within the city. It didn’t work. “Instead of getting my message out, I’m trying to get democracy vouchers,” he said.

Even worse, some candidates allegedly engaged in fraud to qualify for the vouchers.

Sheley Secrest ran for city council and planned to use democracy vouchers but was short on the signatures and donations necessary. She is accused by her former campaign manager of gathering signatures for the program but making the donations herself.

The Seattle Times contacted five people whom Secrest said donated to her campaign, and all five denied giving those donations.

Seattle provides the most-recent and highest-profile example of the corruption and failure of the public financing of campaigns, but it’s hardly the only one.

Maine, which has had publicly financed campaigns for years, had numerous candidates run for office for the sole purpose of gaining access to public funds. After they received the funds, they “purchased” campaign services that were provided by their friends or family. One candidate, Peter Throumoulos, was convicted of stealing $18,000.

Between 2001 and 2012,  a dozen supposedly “clean elections” candidates in Maine who used public financing were investigated for misusing taxpayer funding.

Washington is no stranger to dirty politics and there is much that can be done to root out corruption. But publicly funding campaigns will not solve the problem. Instead, it’s more likely to exacerbate it.

Eric Peterson is a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity.