Big-money influences political races at every level around the U.S. Part of the answer, advocates say, is giving candidates access to public money for their campaigns. Albuquerque voters are weighing a ballot question aimed at making the local campaign financing system a more realistic and competitive option.
Canvasser Keegan Kloer squinted at his phone’s screen, shielding it from the bright afternoon sun with his hand. He said some addresses under his breath for this far Northeast Heights neighborhood, a winding maze of houses that look alike.
He was there to talk Democracy Dollars, a proposition put to voters in this year’s municipal election in Albuquerque. He knocked, and a woman opened the door.
"Hi there. Hi, my name is Keegan with the New Mexico Working Families Party," he said. "And I was just here to talk a little bit about the November election. And I was wondering, first of all, what are some of the things that are kind of impacting you and your family, issues that you all think about?"
This was a lucky one, because someone answered and seemed like they were OK to talk for a minute. Usually, Kloer ends up waiting at the door, then leaving postcards behind.
Explaining Democracy Dollars is hard when you’ve only got a couple of seconds to grab someone’s attention. "The first challenge is that public financing isn’t something that’s necessarily talked about a whole lot," Kloer said. "I mean, this is basically an enhancement to the public financing system."
In New Mexico, people running for certain offices can choose to pull down public money—your tax dollars—to run their campaigns. This theoretically means that people without personal wealth, rich allies or corporate connections can run for office in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, for the Public Regulation Commission and for statewide judicial posts.
Albuquerque voters are deciding if extra and unused millions in the city’s election fund should go to registered and eligible voters as $25 vouchers. People could choose to donate them to those candidates.
Sydney Tellez is the associate director for Common Cause New Mexico, an organization that aims to improve ethics and access in government. "It has been increasingly more difficult to run a campaign, especially because of how much it costs to run a campaign," she said.
An Albuquerque City Council race is costing around $60,000 these days, but public financing won’t get you anywhere close, according to Common Cause. "So, the influence of money already presents barriers for other people to run for office," she said. "With improved public financing programs, we hope that that opens the doors for other types of people to run for office."
Also rolled into the same ballot question: more initial public money for mayoral candidates. Recent mayoral races have cost more than $1 million, and the city’s outdated campaign public financing system, Tellez said, hasn’t kept up.
Plus, she added, candidates chasing those $25 vouchers to help make up the difference means more contact with the people they mean to represent. "The point of the Democracy Dollars program is to encourage candidates to have a better relationship with the community," she said. "So, in order to get that $25 coupon, you need to directly, you know, talk to people for it."
The Democracy Dollars ballot question has drawn criticism from the state’s Republican Party and the Albuquerque Journal editorial board, who say it could make people who already hold office even harder to beat.
Lonna Atkeson is the director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. "I mean, name recognition and incumbency is just a huge factor in elections and election campaigns," she said. "The most likely people who are going to have the organization, the resources and the information to use this resource the best are those people who are currently in office."
Seattle tried this for the first time in 2017, and early studies show that, yes, more individuals donated to campaigns with the voucher system. But it was still disproportionately wealthy, white and older voters who participated.
Here, the program’s champions say Democracy Dollars will boost voter participation in elections in Albuquerque. Atkeson isn’t so sure.
"People get to participate in the election as voters," she said. "You know, these are $25. Does that really provide a lot to a voter, that I’m giving this money to a campaign? And how is that different? How does that feel different from giving your own money to a campaign?"
The aims of Democracy Dollars are good, Atkeson said—more candidates, a more diverse field of candidates, and more voter participation. She’s just not sure, she added, that it will work out that way. Common Cause, on the other hand, says the Democracy Dollars plan might not solve every problem in the local elections process, but given the chance, it would help.
Early-voting sites open around Albuquerque on Oct. 19. Election Day is Nov. 5.