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Politics

Austin Voters Will Decide On 'Democracy Dollars.' Here Are 6 Things To Know About Prop H.

People wait in line to vote at a polling place.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

Lee esta historia en español.

Should the City of Austin pay for registered voters to have a chance to contribute to the campaign of a local candidate they’d like to see win?

That’s the question at the heart of Proposition H.

Thanks to a petition effort from the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform, voters are being asked to decide on five propositions that would change how we elect local politicians and how Austin’s government works. Proposition H, the last one on the ballot, has to do with campaign finance.

But, it’s a little confusing. Here are six things to know.

1. So, is the city just going to hand out cash?

That would be nice — but, no.

If Prop H passes, the city would mail up to two $25 vouchers to each eligible voter. Each voter in the city would get a voucher for a mayoral race and, if their district representative is up for election, a voucher for a City Council candidate.

Voters write the name of the candidate or candidates they want to support on each voucher and turn them into the city clerk. The money doesn’t get spent until these vouchers are filled out and returned.

2. What’s the problem supporters say this will solve?

The problem is that predominantly wealthy and white areas of Austin contribute more to local races — thereby, arguably, having more say in the city’s politics.

Consider this example from a Texans for Public Justice report: During the 2016 Austin City Council races, 44% of funds from within the city that went to candidates came from District 10 (Northwest Austin), which has the highest median family income. While most of that money went toward candidates within the district, one-third of the cash flowed to candidates running to represent other council districts.

Those who support Prop H argue a "Democracy Dollars" program would give low-income communities more of a chance to influence local politics and that it would help candidates with less access to wealthy donors run a campaign.

“[This] program would absolutely help bring in more voices, more diverse expertise and diverse lived experiences and professional experiences to our democratic process,” Jehmu Greene, a political strategist who helped write some of Austinites for Progressive Reform’s propositions, said at a virtual press conference last week.

“‘Democracy Dollars’ levels the playing field of running for office for women, for people of color, for young people.”

3. What would this cost?

The city estimates that a "Democracy Dollars" program would cost roughly $2.3 million per year. This would include funding for the vouchers, plus supplies like postage needed to mail out the vouchers.

Supporters, on the other hand, estimate this would cost less than $850,000 a year.

4. Would a candidate automatically be eligible for "Democracy Dollars?"

No. Candidates would have to opt into this program. By doing so, they would agree to certain requirements, including participating in at least three public debates.

But there’s something else Prop H does. By creating a "Democracy Dollars" program, it also repeals a current candidate finance program at the city, called the Austin Fair Campaign Ordinance. (In 2016, I dove deep into this here.)

This current program allows candidates to enter into an agreement with the city that limits how much money they can spend and accept during their campaign. In return, if they make it to a runoff election, the city writes them a check to help pay for those additional weeks of campaigning.

Opponents of Prop H argue that getting rid of this voluntary program is a mistake and that the city should consider offering a program that puts limits on how much money a candidate can spend or receive.

Historically, participation in the Austin Fair Campaign Ordinance has been low. It would go away if Prop H passes.

5. How has a program like this worked in other cities?

Seattle has had a "Democracy Dollars" program for almost five years.

Here’s what a third-party auditor found when studying how the program worked during 2019 local elections:

  • 8% of people who received vouchers used them to support a candidate. That was double the rate during 2017 elections.
  • Older residents were more likely than younger residents to use vouchers.
  • More than half of the candidates who ran participated in the program, which amassed nearly $2.5 million in funding for campaigns.
  • While more candidates ran for office once a "Democracy Dollars" program was in place, the percentage of candidates who were women or people of color did not increase.
  • Voucher use was more common in wealthier, whiter parts of the city.

6. So, that’s it?

Well, there’s more to know.

Council Member Greg Casar has proposed a couple changes he would like to make to this program, and any voucher program, if it passes.

For example, he would like to widen the program to include not just registered voters, but all people eligible to contribute to a campaign — this, presumably, could include non-citizens.

He also wants to limit how much personal funds a candidate taking part in a voucher program, like a "Democracy Dollars" program, could contribute to their own campaign. He has proposed limiting this to $5,000.

Here's what you'll see on the ballot for Proposition H:

Shall the City Charter be amended to adopt a public campaign finance program, which requires the city clerk to provide up to two $25 vouchers to every registered voter who may contribute them to candidates for city office who meet the program requirements?

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