SLO may give voters $20 to spend on candidates
March 17, 2016
On a 3-2 vote, the San Luis Obispo City Council endorsed the idea of distributing city funds to voters who could then donate the money to council candidates. Under the proposed scheme, city voters would receive $20 “democracy vouchers,” which they could only give to candidates who refuse to accept conventional campaign contributions.
The democracy voucher idea was first brought to the city by San Luis Obispo farmer William Ostrander, currently a candidate for Congress. Supporters of the proposal say it would increase voter participation in city elections and would prevent money from outside of the area swaying local voting.
On Tuesday, the council voted to direct city staff to prepare policy, legal and operational plans for a democracy voucher program. Councilmen John Ashbaugh, Dan Carpenter and Dan Rivoire voted in favor of the program, while Mayor Jan Marx and Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson cast the dissenting votes.
Carpenter said the proposal would level the playing field and lead to more candidates running for city office and more people engaged in voting. Marx said the democracy voucher idea was a solution in search of a problem, and people who support it should go through the ballot measure process to prove it is something citizens want.
City staff estimates the voucher program would cost $636,754 to $650,254 in the first year and $240,500 to $377,440 annually thereafter. The annual estimate factors in both election and non-election years.
Funding for the program would likely come from the city’s general fund.
Cal Poly political science professor Michael Latner, who is a proponent of the voucher program, said administrative costs could be lowered significantly.
There are currently about 25,000 registered voters in San Luis Obispo. It is unclear how many would participate in the voucher program.
Citizens Congress, the organization backing the plan, estimated voters would spend 20 percent of the voucher funds issued.
Existing city campaign finance rules prohibit donors from contributing more than $300 to a single campaign.
The proposed democracy voucher ordinance would set $50,000 as the maximum amount a candidate could receive in city election funds. The donation cap is three times the amount raised by any one candidate in the 2014 council race.