Voter-owned elections for Chapel Hill

The Town of Chapel Hill is proposing a system to provide public financing to candidates that can demonstrate a base level of community support. This can be a great way to help candidates focus more on talking to voters and less time on raising money.

The Council discussed this at their meeting tonight. Did anyone else watch this? If so, can you explain Kevin Wolff's comments, because I didn't find him especially coherent. He kept calling himself "viable" and claimed that incumbents running for re-election was hypocritical.

Chapel Hill is the first municipality in North Carolina to receive legislative authorization to provide a locally funded public campaign financing program. Session Law 2007-222 provides the following key requirements.

  1. The program must be voluntary for candidates.
  2. Candidates participating in the program are required to demonstrate public support.
  3. Candidates participating are required to accept fund-raising and spending limits established by the Town.
  4. The Town’s requirements are drawn to further free and fair elections.
  5. The Town’s requirements do not discriminate based on race, creed, position on issues, incumbency or party affiliation.
  6. Public funds received are restricted to campaign purposes.
  7. Guidelines are drawn by State Board of Elections
  8. Unspent funds are returned to the Town.

- Proposed Public Campaign Financing Program for Chapel Hill, 4/14/08

Explanation about what each of these means is on the town's web site (link above). I think they're quite fair. For example, participating candidates would have to raise seed money to demonstrate public support - $750 from 75 people for Town Council, $1,500 from 150 supporters for mayoral candidates. Similarly, Council candidates would be limited to raising a total of $2,250, Mayoral contenders could raise twice that amount.

The program would then grant a certain amount of funds to participating candidates, who would also be eligible to receive additional rescue funds if their opponents outspend them by more than 140%. Accordingly,the proposal also calls for "more timely reporting of late-campaign expenditures" so that the Town can determine whether someone is being out-spent before the election (instead of after, as we do with current rules).

There will be a public hearing on this proposal on May 14th.



I plan on attending the public hearing to speak in strong support of this plan. Speaking as a former candidate, a program like this one would have really leveled the playing field had it been in place when I ran. While raising contributions from 75+ individuals sounds like a daunting task, it also sounds completely doable if a candidate is willing to make an attempt to pursue this model from day one. The $5-$20 threshold limits for qualifying contributions sound right on target. Even with the current limits in place, raising "how much you can spare" from a candidate's supporters leaves quite a funding gap between the candidates who are supported by those who can give $10-$20 each and those whose friends can all easily drop the maximum $250. While I'm moderately happy with the current Council makeup, I'd really like to see us some day elect a person from among the residents of our town to whom a $5-$20 donation is significant chunk of change. Not all of our Council members are rolling in dough, but are there any without rich friends? I think it speaks very strongly of our Councilmembers that they're willing to help remove one of the greatest hurdles to running, and I want to congratulate the members of the committee for developing what to me sounds like a very strong plan.

The only thing I see wrong with the system is that it can be opted out of, though because of our backwards visions campaign finance as free speech at the federal level, changing this is going to require a change in the Supreme Court and FEC membership. So long as the final plan stays reasonably close to the proposed system, I could almost without hesitation commit right now to only supporting candidates in 2009 who choose to let their campaigns be owned by the voters by following this model.


It's nice to read your enthusiastic support for the Voter Owned Elections proposal. I think we do need further discussion regarding the number of qualifying contributions that need to be collected in order to qualify. As you say, 75+ could be a daunting task. I'm eager to hear the feedback from you and others about whether the proposal hits the mark and whether it should be adjusted.

One of the most confusing things I've ever heard about any Voter-Owned Elections program was the comment we received on Monday from a former candidate for Mayor. He said that implementation of a Voter-Owned program would keep people of limited means from being able to run for office. Yes, you read that correctly. Is there a way of making sense of that comment? 

Mark, did Kevin Wolff say this Monday night? I watched the video and didn't catch that. I heard him say that this plan came across as making the Council seem "self-interested" and other things that were more appropriate to be said at the public hearing. Clearly his point on "viability" will come up at such a hearing.

I think the concerns about the cost to run for office are great, but when will the Council examine the "cost" to serve on the Council? People tell me that being able to serve and have other interests and meet multiple demands of family and work are more of a barrier than raising the funds needed to get elected. Just read Laurin Easthom's blog post on something having to give.

More info on the OP calendar at


I was not able to attend last night so I just watched the re-run.  Great arguments were made, BUT.  Is there any evidence that we have a problem?  We have limits, are they too high? If so, let's lower them.  Do we believe that more citizens would become engaged, to include contributing to candidate(s), and vote if we did this?

This plan will protect incumbents because a challenger typically needs more money to run a competitive campaign. 

This plan does not solve the Chapel Hill problem because our problem is not just money to run,  but the time to serve.  To say that VOEs will help low income and minority citizens have the funds to run ignores that they will not have the time to serve, unless maybe they are retired. Other communities may have other dynamics.

This plan ignores what should be our budget priorities.  With $60K in the budget for the Arts Manager and putting $50K in for this means that $110K is going to what I would call secondary priorities in a year where we are talking about an 11% increase in Town taxes.

This plan does not address "independent" spending for or against a candidate or slate of candidates.  What good does limiting what a candidate can do if an "independent" pocketbook can spend unlimited funds.  Think land tax opposition as a good example.

I fully expect the Council will approve this in June.  After all, "This truly is an opportunity to be a model," said Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos. I guess one could argue that we value that above what else we might do with our tax dollars.

Tomorrow at 7pm meeting, the Council will hold another hearing. There have been several changes since the first hearing:

In this morning's CHN, Kevin Wolff bought a half page ad explaining his opposition to the proposal:

As I said before, I also have many reservations, but it will probably pass. I'm not sure a whole lot of people are aware of this or have thought much about it. Makes you wonder what would happen if it were a voter referendum rather than a Council decision.

Now that I think about it, thanks to Fred, the Council that generated this proposal internally should not decide whether it flies.  Very few candidates equate time with money -- campaigning is an exhausting proposition whether or not the candidate has time to serve.  We've seen in recent local elections that candidates who don't work hard enough don't get the job.  This includes those who have the luxury and/or support to give it a shot.  I would not want to manage a "grassroots" campaign with so many small contributions to track before the big money kicks in.  This proposal encourages candidates to run more expensive campaigns than necessary.  Full-color family portraits don't win elections.  Legwork is cheap.  So is putting your mouth where your money is (not). 
This is a great theoretical question, but to have a referendum on this will require approval of the General Assembly.  (cue complaining about Raleigh)
Probably too late for a referendum, seeing as how the train has already left the station.  Cue complaining about Raleigh!  But hey -- the General Assembly has grounds to swoop down on this initiative if/when it becomes a statewide model.  Chapel Hill is not my turf, so all I can do is observe and comment from a distance. 

I'm trying to watch this meeting on TV right now. (I say "trying" because some of the opponents are really grating on my nerves right now, and I'm not feeling as tough as usual.) I don't get why people are suddenly bringing up this suggestion of a referendum, but I think it's a terrible idea. Looking at our most recent election we had a similar issue on the ballot (the Land Transfer Tax) in which one "side" had a lot of money to spend, and it led to what I think is not a representative result. Those who want to use money to influence elections, would use it to influence this as well. That doesn't tell us anything but it costs the Town and subverts our democratically-elected representatives.

I think Matt C's 2007 campaign is only the most recent example of overspending in local races. I can't understand how people can say there isn't a problem here. This "referendum" thing is a diversion and I'm not going to follow it down the rabbit hole.

Matt C moved to ask the staff to look into a referendum, but his motion died for lack of a second. The public financing proposal then passed 8-1. I think public information sessions will be the next step.

Ruby, the issue is we in Chapel Hill are trying to follow in the steps of those who have already done this; why did they make their's law through a referendum process?  It is not a diversion, it recognizes the "cherry pick" approach being used.

Some seem to forget that this program is voluntary.  What then changes for those who elect not to participate, other than reporting requirements and having being a non-participant used as a campaign issue? If you think money is evil, it will continue to be, won't it?

As for the Land Transfer Tax, I would bet it would have failed if not one dime was spent in opposition; people didn't like it.

 So tonight, we raised the Council pay, increased their health benefits, even though part-time employees have none, and created permanent health insurance for those who serve for a minimum of eight years.  Well done, don't you think?

"why did they make their's law through a referendum process?"

Because they live in states where you can establish laws that way?  Just a guess.  North Carolina doesn't allow the petition&referendum method of legislating.  North Carolina law generally only allows referenda on taxation/indebtedness issues.

Mark, are you saying NC law does not allow for a referendum to be used to get a sense of the voter's position on an issue?  Once the result is in, the Council could vote the ordinance up or down.

If it's not allowed it's curious that our town attorney or another one of our many lawyers sitting up there did not say anything!

The North Carolina Constitution requires referenda only for general obligation bond issues.  For other issues, no referendum is even allowed unless authorized by the General Assembly by general law or local act. The only referenda that can be petitioned on the ballot in North Carolina relates to the STRUCTURE of local government, for example a petition could force a referenda on changing Chapel Hill or Carrboro elections to partisan, going to districts, changing the size of the governing board, changing terms of office, changing the name of the town, and abolishing the town manager form of government. Petitions can also force an election on liquor sales.  There are no provisions whatsoever on advisory referenda on anything.


"Mark, are you saying NC law does not allow for a referendum to be used to get a sense of the voter's position on an issue?"

That's my understanding.

Mark is correct. We elect town board members to make those decisions. We have a representative form of government in North Carolina, not a democracy.  This is not New England with town meetings, nor is it most every state west of the Missisippi which have initative and referenda
When you wrote above, "This is a great theoretical question, but to have a referendum on this will require approval of the General Assembly," I thought that meant that the GA could authorize it.
yes, the General Assembly could authorize an advisory referendum.

The other day when the Supreme Court declared part of the McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional, the guessing immediately began on how long it would be before the laws in states like Maine and Arizona would be challenged.  Both states enacted public financing laws with provisions that penalize private funding of political speech.

 Since the new Chapel Hill ordinance has a similar provision that increases public funding for participants taking the public money when non-participating challengers spend certain amounts of their own money, it might be tough for that provision to stand a challenge given this new ruling.

It's still hard to believe that people really believe that you can regulate money in politics without limiting political speech.  I guess time will tell if the 1st Amendment applies in Chapel Hill.

Isn't the point that everyone should be allowed to say whatever they want, but that in an election big money gets to broadcast it farther, harder, more often?

 It's not the freedom of speech - it's how much advantage do we want to give big money to distribute the already "freed" speech.

 The idea is to keep the playing field as level as possible so that my "free speech" is not completely obliterated because some big monied interest uses their wherewithal to drown me out. 


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