These States Are Stepping Up To Reform Money In Politics In 2016

Voters in South Dakota and Washington state will get to decide.
Voters in Washington state will have the chance to clean big money out of politics this fall.
Voters in Washington state will have the chance to clean big money out of politics this fall.
Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The next front in the battle for campaign finance and lobbying reforms will likely be on the ballot in Washington state and South Dakota in November. Activists there have either succeeded or are well on their way to securing ballot positions for omnibus reform initiatives to change the states’ campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws.

The two ballot initiatives mark the continuation of a strategy pursued by national reform groups like Represent.Us, the principal mover behind the Washington and South Dakota initiatives, and Every Voice to take the issue of money in politics directly to voters in states and municipalities across the country. They are also joined by the conservative reform group Take Back Our Republic.

“If we can win a few states in November, there will be a strong message that voters are taking matters into their own hands on this issue, and that it is the beginning of a similar dynamic that advanced gay marriage and other movements that were driven from the states to Washington, D.C.,” Josh Silver, executive director of Represent.Us, told The Huffington Post.

Represent.Us has worked with bipartisan partners in Washington and South Dakota to pursue this goal. In Washington, co-chairs of the Integrity Washington campaign for I-1464 include leaders from the League of Women Voters, which leans liberal, and the Seattle Tea Party Patriots, which doesn't. In South Dakota, the Yes On 22 campaign is chaired by the Republican former state Sen. Don Frankenfeld and Democratic ex-state Rep. Darrell Solberg.

The bipartisan nature of these reform efforts is essential to their passage and acceptance, according to those involved.

“South Dakota is a Republican state, and that’s one of the reasons that we are holding this initiative vote," Frankenfeld said. "If it can be successful in a Republican and quite conservative state, we hope that will be a signal to other states, and to the federal government, to make constructive changes."

As part of the effort to achieve bipartisan consensus, the initiatives in Washington and South Dakota bundle together a number of issues, including ethics reform, lobbying reform, transparency policies and public financing of elections. These are carefully tailored to policies that have a broader ideological acceptance.

Take the public financing system proposed in both initiatives. The idea is to create a system of “democracy vouchers,” providing each registered voter with a certain number of $50 credits to use as campaign contributions to candidates who choose to participate in the publicly funded system. The “democracy voucher” method, which was adopted by popular ballot in Seattle in 2015, seems to appeal to conservatives, as it puts the power to fund candidates in the hands of individual voters and not through lump-sum government payments to political campaigns.

The people leading the initiative campaigns in both states noted that their desire to pursue these reforms stems from their states’ respective poor grades in the Center for Public Integrity’s annual State Integrity investigation. The nonprofit’s ranking system examines state transparency, ethics and government accountability laws. Washington received a D+ last year, while South Dakota was one of 11 states that received an F. (Alaska, which scored a C, was the best-rated state on the list.)

Peter McCollum, campaign manager for the Integrity Washington ballot initiative campaign, called the D+ grade “a slap in the face for people in Washington" and a sign that "there were some big holes that needed to be addressed.”

Washington and South Dakota probably won't be the only states with money-in-politics reform initiatives on the ballot in 2016. Idaho looks like it will have an ethics reform initiative. In Arizona, voters will likely be able to vote for an initiative that will shore up the state’s public financing system and increase transparency of undisclosed “dark” money. Voters in Florida's Miami-Dade County will be able to vote on an initiative to reform the municipality's campaign finance and lobbying laws while also creating a public financing system that would match small-dollar donations with public funds.

“These organizations and leaders know that they are charting a new story on the issue of money in politics,” said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice. “It’s a story that won’t be about super PACs, it will be about citizens. It won’t be about billionaires. It will be about ballot initiatives.”

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