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Photo Courtesy of ABQ Democracy Dollars via twitter (@BurqueBucks)

Democracy Dollars failed in ABQ but money continues to be heavy influence in elections

Albuquerque voters weighed in on a ballot initiative designed to allow every Albuquerque resident a $25 “coupon” to donate to a local candidate of during 2019 municipal elections. The proposition ultimately failed by just 2,039 votes — approximately 2.5%. 

The goal of the “Democracy Dollars” proposition was straightforward — to increase minority electoral participation, to incentivize candidates to connect with the communities they serve, to pave the way for a more diverse candidate pool and to limit the influence of private funding in politics. The path to attaining these goals, however, was a bit more convoluted. 

Albuquerque is not the first city to attempt a Democracy Dollars initiative. Seattle piloted a similar program in 2015, and despite its swift implementation, the results have not yet yielded its intended goals. 

According to an analysis conducted by the University of Washington, only about 4% of eligible participants used their vouchers. Of that 4%, “wealthy, white and older residents” were more likely to participate than low-income, younger and non-white residents. In addition, the study found that residents who were already politically engaged were more likely to use their vouchers than new or infrequent voters. 

Back home in Bernalillo County, only about 58% of registered voters participated in the 2018 general election, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State website.

According to Michael Rocca, Ph.D., a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and an award winning researcher on US campaign finance; an education campaign would likely be necessary for this program to achieve its intended goals. 

Rocca explained that although the Democracy Dollars proposal itself would not have raised taxes or cost the city extra budgeting money, a mobilization effort to inform prospective voters of the coupon may well have incurred large costs. 

The City of Albuquerque has allowed for public financing since a referendum passed with 69% of the vote back in 2005. According to the City’s website, in 2011 the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett effectively declaring matching funds in public financing laws unconstitutional. This caused publicly financed candidates in Albuquerque to only received initial distribution of funds based upon $1 per registered voter. 

According to the Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque contributes one-tenth of 1% of its general fund to the election fund each year, thus the current balance of around $3.7 million. 

The Albuquerque Democracy Dollars proposal would have allowed publicly financed City Council candidates to get a maximum of two dollars per registered voter, provided the city councilor candidate could convince around 1,600 voters to give them their vouchers. A mayoral candidate would have had to convince around 27,000 voters to get their additional allotment, based off of the number of registered voters in the city. 

This additional amount could have made public financing more appealing to potential candidates, and the Democracy Dollars campaign argued that it would have incentivized the candidates to engage with the voters more. 

Regardless of the details, the overarching intent behind the Seattle and Albuquerque Democracy Dollars initiatives was clear — change the current campaign financing system. 

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Some of this push for a reshape of campaign financing may be inspired by — as suggested by mailers for the Democracy Dollars proposal — the effects of the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission

Rocca said Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission allowed corporations and unions to use unlimited amounts of their own money for advertising efforts that may align with a particular candidate or party stance because political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. 

Notably, these corporations or unions cannot directly donate to or coordinate with said party or candidate and still fall within the bounds of the Citizens United ruling. This, in effect, leads to special interests — namely corporations or unions — providing a form of political allyship for candidates that they support via advertising initiatives. 

Rocca said cases challenging the constitutionality of the Citizens United ruling, such as v. Federal Elections Commission, have led to the formation of SuperPACs, formally known as “independent expenditure committees.” SuperPACs are how multi-billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, are able to spend millions of their dollars in elections by advertising certain policy narratives, according to Rocca. 

One doesn’t have to look far to see the disparities between publicly financed campaigns and privately financed campaigns. Mayor Tim Keller was the only publicly financed mayoral candidate of 2017 mayoral race, raising just over $400,000 dollars. Challenger Brian Colón, who accepted outside contributions, raised just over $$800,000 dollars. 

The influence of independent money in politics can be seen in just about any campaign in this nation, from state elections to the presidential election. How one views the symptoms of this money on our democracy is subjective, but according to Rocca, completely eliminating private financing in campaigns is unlikely.

“Money is going to be in politics forever, and the reason that money is going to be in politics forever is because the (Citizens United) Supreme Court equates money to speech,” Rocca said.

Despite this, Rocca said that this is not a reason to stop pushing for more accessibility, accountability, or alterations to the current campaign financing system.

“While we will likely never get money out of politics, there are these little experiments (like Democracy Dollars) happening across the nation that are worth paying attention to, particularly if it gives voice to people whose voices typically aren’t heard — that matters for representation,” Rocca said. 

Alyssa Martinez is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @amart4447

Lissa Knudsen is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @lissaknudsen

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