Letters to the Editor

Citizens Congress won’t give up effort to introduce ‘democracy vouchers’ in SLO


On Tuesday, it appears the San Luis Obispo City Council will reverse itself with a 3-2 vote to kill the democracy voucher campaign finance program.

After two previous votes to support the reform, Councilman Dan Carpenter said he changed his mind after hearing from concerned citizens and asked the council to reconsider its support.

We in the Citizens Congress believe this is a perfect example of why democracy vouchers — and campaign finance reform in general — are desperately needed if ordinary citizens are going to take back our political institutions.

Mr. Carpenter was among the most enthusiastic supporters of the proposal, but he is operating in a corrupt financing system.

We believe he sacrificed his principles under pressure from the small number of people who finance campaigns in San Luis Obispo County. It’s a conflict of interest when private money is used to elect public officials.

We aren’t going to give up. We know private financing of candidates can be harmful to the general public interest. Public financing of campaigns does not create conflicts of interest, it objectively supports the public interest.

In 2014, fewer than 200 donors financed all of our city candidates out of 25,000 voters. Consider using democracy vouchers versus private financing: The average cost of a campaign is $15,000 from about 50 donors. Using democracy vouchers, raising that amount of money would require redemption from 750 citizens, who would clearly be more diverse in their interests. That’s a 1,400 percent increase in participation from citizens in the candidate selection process.

The overall cost of electoral integrity for a city this size is quite manageable. Our ordinance would provide a $20 voucher card to every registered voter in the city, which could be redeemed by candidates who agree to public financing. Fewer than half of registered voters typically vote for City Council seats. So a realistic, if still optimistic, estimate would be to get a majority of actual voters — perhaps 13,000 — to participate in the system. For less than it costs the city to renovate our public toilets, we could clean up our local elections.

Funding for the entire program will need to be allocated to ensure startup and administrative costs are not underfunded, but the experience of other cities with public financing suggests the overall costs will be as low as $3 per resident, per election cycle. This is not an extraordinary price to pay for integrity in our elections.

We already use our tax dollars to pay for election administration costs, our council members’ salaries, their health benefits, the buildings they work in and even the meetings where they make policies, some of which we may heartily oppose. Like the roads and schools, these are the costs of having a functioning democracy with citizen control over the policies that we live by. We know private financing of candidates can be harmful to the general public interest. Public financing of campaigns does not create conflicts of interest; it objectively supports the public interest.

This is not a question of conservative or liberal politics.

Both Mayor Jan Marx and Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson — who opposed democracy vouchers — voted to pass a 2012 City Council resolution that recognized the danger of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and the corrosive impact that unlimited private financing has had on the quality of our democracy. But neither supports democratizing the city’s election finance system. As beneficiaries of the status quo, they have little incentive to upset the apple cart.

San Luis Obispo citizens should applaud John Ashbaugh and Dan Rivoire, who have demonstrated their commitment to empowering citizens, and taken responsibility to act, even though they understand they will lose some support from people who would like to maintain their influence.

These local leaders, and ordinary citizens across the country, have had enough.

On Monday, more than 400 Democrats, Republicans and independents were arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for blocking access to a Legislature that has been effectively blocked off to all of us through the corruption of private campaign finance. They were part of a movement called Democracy Spring. They understand the inherent conflict of interest when private money is used to elect public officials. Both major political parties operate as arms of competing corporate lobbies, and developers and statewide power brokers funneling money into local races subvert our community interests.

We need to take our elections back nationally, and the best way is to start in our own community of San Luis Obispo.

We strongly urge citizens to contact the City Council and demand that they support electoral integrity.

William Ostrander is director and co-founder of Citizens Congress, a nonprofit dedicated to removing the influence of money in politics. He is also a regenerative farmer and a Democratic candidate for Congress running to replace retiring Rep. Lois Capps.