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May 13, 2022


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We will see if "people power" still works in a very low turnout election like this one. I'm worried about that. Coming out of the worst of COVID we haven't seen the "people power" we have seen in the recent past. If this election is not an argument for serious campaign finance reform in Oregon, I don't know what is (and not just the City Council races). The Legislature needs to get to work on that next year and we need to vote on it ASAP.

There is no solution to campaign financing if we continue in holding winner-take-all single-member races for legislative bodies, because an exponential increase in spending is inherent in the DNA of a winner-takes-all system with private financing. Since the First Amendment forbids a prohibition on private financing of campaigns (and such a ban could be easily gotten around by uncoordinated campaigns by others anyway), there is no solution possible to “Democracy for Sale” if we continue to look only at the supply (financing) side.

WInner-Take-All elections are zero-sum games — anything candidate A does to hurt candidate B helps Candidate A and vice versa, so there is absolutely no point where another dollar on the pile doesn’t seem worthwhile to spend if it can be raised. And as long as that is the case, candidates have to do everything in their power to raise it and spend it if they want to be assured of a win.

What we must do if we want to reduce the effectiveness of money power (and thus the motivation of those with money to pour it into buying seats in legislative bodies like city councils and state houses) is shift these bodies away from being assemblies of people elected in single-member districts (seats, wards, etc.) to assemblies of people elected from multi member districts all elected together, so that any significant voting bloc will be able to be assured of winning some representation within the multi-member district, and everyone (or everyone except for people in really small voting blocs who get no seats) gets to say that their vote helped elect someone who represents them — which is the opposite of what we have now.

Given the progressive lean for Salem as a place, progressives should have a majority on the council - but not an absolute lock on all seats with no more conservative council members. The way to reduce the role of money would be to elect the council all at-large using ranked choice voting with the top four finishers being seated. In this way, the best of the progressives and at least one more-conservative candidate are likely to be elected every two years, and there’s really not much incentive on either side to try to overwhelm the election with money, because the base vote for the other side isn’t going to be swayed by money. (The system I’m describing has been used to elect the council in Cambridge, Mass. for decades, and it works well.)

This system has all the normal advantages of ranked-choice voting (a LOT less negative campaigning, a lot more focus on issues and alliances, no need to have a primary and twice the spending, a lot more success for women and people of color winning seats without the need for special gerrymandered districts, etc.) PLUS the advantage of reducing the likelihood of tiny changes in the electorate leading to radical swings in the composition of the elected body. With a system of single-member wards like Salem has, a freak outcome in each ward could easily produce a radically unrepresentative council — which is what motivates the huge money flow into the races now. The developers and the chamber know that they start out behind, but they know that if they pour enough money in, they have a shot at electing their candidates … so “enough money” will keep going up and up and up as long as the decisions that the city council makes have such big effects on the businesses pouring money into the races . . . Which is always going to be the case.

Again, in campaign finance - just as with drugs, guns, abortions or whatever — trying to prohibit the supply without dealing with the demand is futile. Our system is designed perfectly to demand the most money possible, and it does. Until we change that system, howling about campaign finance reform is just howling at the moon — it is a wasteful distraction from figuring out a way to actually get some change made.

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