The Democracy of 10,000 Maniacs

Some political scientists argue that voting is irrational, that the act of political participation doesn't bring enough benefits to the individual to make it worth the effort.

This might be so in many places, but Oregonians don't think so. Recently, 10,000 have declared, 'things are different here.'

That's how many voters coughed up $5 and gave their signatures to candidates running for mayor and city council in Portland, under the city's new 'Voter Owned Elections' system. Moreover, the election is still months away, in May, and it's only a primary, to boot. What is going on?

Yogi Berra, one of baseball's most famous orators, once observed -- "If the people don't want to come, nobody's gonna stop 'em." And therein lies the problem with elections, and with democratic government more broadly. You can't compel participation; you can't stop people from sitting out the vote.

But what if you could attract people, make it more fun, more popular -- and, more rewarding to participate?

Voter Owned Elections -- also called Clean Elections in the seven other states and two cities that have similar systems -- do just that, in at least three ways.

First, they help give more choices to voters, meaning more different kinds of candidates who are likely to catch someone's fancy. What's that mean? Take the current Portland all-male city government; all white, too. They are fine men, all, but -- I mean -- well, you get the point. In contrast, among the seven Voter Owned Elections candidates, there's Amanda Fritz, nurse and neighborhood activist -- it's her second time running under the system, and she might well win this time; John Branam, African-American, development director for the public schools; and Charles Lewis, founder of an inner-city non-profit music program. There is also Sho Dozono, born in Japan, a civic leader and businessman, who is running in exactly the opposite way from what candidates like him would ordinarily choose. In fact, some of his major backers in the Chamber of Commerce and Oregonian newspaper have been the most ardent foes of Voter Owned Elections. Three other candidates -- a software engineer and transportation activist, and two environmentalists, one who is organizing director for the watchdog Citizens Utility Board and the other chief of staff to a retiring city councilor -- round out the slate. Even the most political among them -- Jim Middaugh, top aide to departing Commissioner Erik Sten, describes himself this way. "I'm an organizer, rabble-rouser, activist type," he says, adding that he's eager to employ his "what do I have to do today to get things done" philosophy on the city council. Do these sound like the 'usual suspects,' here in the City of Roses?

Second, Voter Owned Elections do something else to increase the reward for voters -- they give each person an equal stake. In traditional political campaigns, a few people will give big contributions, a lot of people will give small contributions, and most won't give anything at all. And all three groups will share the same expectation once the election is over -- the big dogs, the big givers, will have more access to the elected official, and will be more likely to get their needs addressed. Not under Voter Owned Elections. Once candidates collect the set number of $5 contributions they need to qualify to run (1,000 for city commissioner, 1,500 for mayor), they cannot ask for, and cannot receive, any further private contributions for their campaign. Everyone is equal on their contributors list -- at $5 a pop -- and once the campaign begins, and once they are in office, no-one gets asked for money.

Finally, candidates and elected officials will change the way they spend their time. Do the math yourself. Take a situation that is actually occurring in Portland. In January a 'surprise' council seat opened up, when Erik Sten announced he'd retire on April 4, well before his term is over. Talk about last minute! But in just a couple weeks, a candidate was able to make the decision to run, use the Voter Owned Elections system, and collect more than 1,000 signatures and $5 contributions, in turn receiving enough public funds to run a credible primary campaign ($140,000). How would a traditional privately funded candidate approach this challenge? Who would they have needed to meet with, to decide about running? Who will they need to keep meeting with, to raise money for the rest of the campaign? And, if they happen to win and get into office, what about that campaign debt, and what about the next campaign???

Voter Owned Elections is providing a healthy alternative to politics as usual in Portland. Months before a traditionally low-turnout election -- a municipal primary, for goodness sakes! -- more than 10,000 citizens are already involved, giving seven relative newcomers to politics a chance to present themselves to voters. And for those voters, the rest of the campaign will be about what campaigns are supposed to be about -- issues, positions, problems, solutions, and conversations between hopeful public servants and the people they seek to represent.

All the people, that is -- have-nots as well as haves, denim pockets as well as deep pockets. Because in Voter Owned Elections, when you 'max out' as a donor with a simple $5 contribution, you get more for your money, not less. You get choices. You get hope. You get fairness. You may just get the democracy you deserve.

Things are different here. And that is a very good thing.

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