Publicly Funded Elections in Portland, Oregon

On Monday, I had a letter to the editor published in support of Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s publicly funded elections policy. Here’s the body of that letter.


Our elected officials spend entirely too much time courting wealthy donors. It makes sense for them to do that, so they can save time fundraising for their campaigns. But it prevents them from talking to — and really hearing — a representative sample of their constituencies.

Portland has experimented with publicly-funded elections as a way of minimizing the influence of the wealthy and strengthening the voice of the majority. Commissioner Amanda Fritz was elected on the strength of small donations. Unfortunately, there was fraud with the previous version and the voters chose to end that program.

Commissioner Fritz’s new proposal to implement publicly funded elections has successful precedent in New York, Washington, and other places, with solid oversight to prevent fraud.

This would help people from diverse backgrounds run for office, which our society desperately needs.


Letters to the Editor are exceedingly short. The guidelines say 150 words, so I had make my arguments very short — just the highlights.

I’d like to expand on the arguments presented above, and respond to some of the criticisms leveled in the comments on OregonLive.

And yes, I’m aware that responding to newspaper page comments is a dicey undertaking. I will endeavor to rise to the occasion.

Our elected officials spend too much time fundraising and courting wealthy donors. Many voters don’t know that, for example, members of Congress spend at least 50% of their time calling people and asking for money. It naturally follows that that they would call wealthy donors first. Everyone complains that legislators don’t know enough about the bills they’re voting on. Imagine how that would change if they didn’t have to spend so much time fundraising.

Even if they spent the same amount of time fundraising, and only changed who they targeted in their fundraising. Imagine what it would be like if every $250 donation mattered as much as every $1500 donation. How would the conversations with constituents change?

Richard Ellmyer claims that Commissioner Fritz’s voting record has not been impacted by her publicly financed election. Ellmyer is well known in Portland political circles, and I want to thank him for welcoming me to the public discussion with his customary enthusiasm. Natch.

Attacking Fritz’s voting record is something of a red herring as its important to look not only at her relative voting record, but also her influence on the members of the council and other parts of the city. How many votes did she swing her way, so it looks like her voting record is the same as the others?

Just a couple of examples of Fritz’s performance on City Council:

- Fritz led the charge to save the city $500M on our water filtration and treatment. Commissioner Nick Fish is on record giving her the credit for this save.

- Fritz pushed for the city’s budget surplus to go towards boring, but incredibly important, things like preventative maintenance — for this the Portland Mercury called her an “uncompromising voice” on the city council for voting her conscience instead of political deal making and patronage.

These two examples are EXACTLY the reason we need publicly funded elections.

Public election funding supports diversity, and diversity in elected officials is inherently a good thing. Besides the obvious benefits to all of of seeing people like us represented in leadership roles, encouraging us to feel like we have a place, there have been a number of studies showing that businesses and government agencies with executive teams from diverse backgrounds bring in more money, retain employees longer, and innovate better.

Even if we don’t always get diversity right, or if we elect diverse officials and it doesn’t work out, the evidence clearly points to the fact that diversity is something we should strive for as an ideal. In the first comment here I’ll post a list of links for further study if that interests you.

Publicly funded elections create “government controlled” elections. This is a criticism from OnceAgain9. At least Ellmyer has the guts to go by his real name.

It seems silly to say this, but the government already controls election processes. The actual problem is that the rich have far too much influence over elected officials. A study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University show that “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

By creating an election system where politicians are allowed to spend more time with less-wealthy donors, they can separate from the dependence on wealthy donors and make decisions that are better for the majority of Americans.

Oversight for publicly funded elections is needed. Portland’s previous attempt met its end because of fraud. All credit goes to City Auditor Caballero for pointing out that this is a big job, and not something that can be done with existing city employees. At least one full time staff member must be appointed, and possibly more. I look forward to updates from Commissioner Fritz in meetings on December 7th and 14th.

I encourage all citizens of Portland to read more about Fritz’s proposal and encourage them to let the city council know that they support publicly funded elections as a way of bringing more diverse voices to Portland’s city government.

My letter to the Editor:

Willamette Week has a run down of other publicly funded election programs:

This article from American Progress links to several studies that show how this works in business and government

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