Denver Government

Will the Fair Elections Fund Be Big Enough for Denver's Big Races?

Will the Fair Elections Fund dry up?
Will the Fair Elections Fund dry up? Westword
During the first Denver mayoral forum of the 2023 municipal election cycle, candidates tackled a question about the Fair Elections Fund, a public-financing mechanism that the city's voters approved in 2018.

"One of the sole reasons I decided to run for mayor is because it does level the playing field. For years and years past, it's always been candidates that buy the election, simply because their funds, their war chests, are so huge that someone who's running who has good intentions, good ideas, they can't afford to compete," one mayoral candidate, Aurelio Martinez, said at the November 16 gathering.

"It was a game-changer," added candidate Lisa Calderón, who also ran for mayor in 2019, before the campaign-funding program took effect.

The Fair Elections Fund, which matches donations from $5 up to $50 at a ratio of nine to one for candidates who agree to lower contribution limits and take donations only from individuals and small donor committees, is now up and running in advance of the April 4 election.

Mayoral candidates can receive up to $750,000 from the fund. Kelly Brough, former head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, has pulled in $135,494 as matches for donations she's already collected. State Representative Leslie Herod, another mayoral candidate, has received $157,592 from the Fair Elections Fund.

So far, the city has paid out a total of $2,585,160 to candidates for numerous municipal offices based on qualifying contributions.

But the fund is capped at $8 million for this election cycle. And as hopefuls continue to jump into the mayor's race — there are sixteen registered candidates as of this week, all eager to replace term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock — the fund could be at risk of drying up. If it does, Denver City Council — some of whose members are also taking Fair Election Fund money in their re-election campaigns — could decide to replenish it.

Four years ago, Denver voters overwhelmingly approved a measure establishing the Fair Elections Fund. Council had put the item on the ballot after negotiating with campaign finance reform advocates, such as Owen Perkins, who'd already successfully placed their own proposal on the ballot; they subsequently pulled it. The final measure called for a $2.88 per resident per year allocation for the fund from the Denver budget, adding up to $8 million over the four-year municipal election cycle.

"One big purpose is trying to get out the corrupting influence of big money in elections and eliminate that as much as you can do at the local level, which is actually fairly substantial," says Perkins, who works with Clean Slate Now Action, which focuses on getting rid of big money in politics. "And then when you do that, part of what that means — the goal and the results — is to make the elections, make running for office, much more accessible to a broader field of candidates, where you don’t need wealth and access to wealth to run for office."

So far, 49 of the 62 candidates signed up for the 2023 Denver election have opted into the Fair Elections Fund. "It’s pretty exciting to me that it’s so well received by candidates," Perkins says.

Aside from providing public financing for campaigns, the Fair Elections Fund language also lowered overall campaign contribution limits. For example, all mayoral candidates, many of whom have generated millions of dollars in campaign contributions in past elections, now have a single contribution limit — whether from an individual, a business or a political action committee — of $1,000, down from $3,000 in the past. However, mayoral candidates who participate in the Fair Elections Fund are limited to maximum donations of $500, and those only from actual humans or small donor committees, which are set up to ensure that the money comes from people rather than political financing entities. Other Fair Elections Fund candidates are also subject to contribution limits.

Even if they sign up, not every candidate makes the cut for money from the Fair Elections Fund. Mayoral candidates need to show that they've gotten donations of $5 or more from at least 250 individual Denver residents to qualify. Candidates for council, auditor, judge, or clerk and recorder must prove that they've received $5 or more from at least 100 individual Denver residents. The deadline for showing this proof and qualifying for funding is February 13, which is fifty days before the election.

The Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office sent out the first payments from the fund in August and another batch this month; they represent matches for over 7,100 contributions. The office will send out additional payments in January, February and March...if the money holds.

While the fund still has $5,414,840 left (some of which will go to the salaries of employees who manage it), the office's latest chart of disbursements shows how much money each of the 33 candidates who have qualified so far could still receive: a total of $6,289,839.

And candidates are still getting into the race. Chris Hansen, a state senator who just announced his run for mayor, plans to qualify for the Fair Elections Fund. Mike Johnston, the former CEO of Gary Community Ventures who resigned from that post to announce his candidacy a day later, also plans to participate. That could add another $1.5 million in funding.

And the mass of mayoral candidates is just a fraction of those who can get funds. Candidates for district council seats are eligible for up to $150,000, while candidates running for at-large council seats, clerk and recorder, judge or auditor can get up to $250,000. And that's just in the first round of their races.

A runoff is inevitable for some of these offices, and the Fair Elections Fund is supposed to help cover costs for that, too.

Under city rules, every office other than at-large Denver City Council member requires that a successful candidate get over 50 percent of the vote (the two leading at-large candidates get those seats); otherwise, there is a runoff between the two top vote-getters. In a runoff, the Fair Elections Fund is supposed to give the candidates another round of funding equal to 25 percent of the money they've already received from the fund.

"We do think that in a scenario where we might run out of money, it would likely happen during the runoff," Audrey Kline, a deputy clerk and recorder, said during a November 15 Denver City Council Finance and Governance Committee meeting.

But Alton Dillard, spokesperson for the Clerk and Recorder's Office, has an answer for that: "We don’t expect the fund to be tapped out, but there is a fail-safe in place if that happens. If somehow the fund gets tapped out and not replenished, candidates who didn't receive their full allotment would simply revert to the contribution limits that already exist in municipal code."

For mayor, that limit would shift from $500 to $1,000, while limits for judge, clerk and recorder and auditor would rise from $350 to $700. District council candidate limits would increase from $200 to $400.

Or city council could decide to re-fund the fund.

"Do we add more money to the Fair Elections Fund and allow limits to go up? Do we add more money to the Fair Elections Fund and not allow limits to go up? If it's that, we have to pass an ordinance," says Councilman Chris Hinds, who is running for reelection in District 10 and has opted into the Fair Elections Fund.

Perkins hopes that the money allocated to the Fair Elections Fund is enough to cover the race this time around. But he's open to the idea of Denver City Council adding more money, whether before the first round on April 4 or before the runoff races on June 6.

"I think it certainly would be a valid interpretation of the will of the people that they wanted this to be fully funded — and if it’s coming up short, I feel like you’ve got a pretty good mandate coming up at the polls that they want this," he says. "I don’t think it would be an issue to add money."

But wait! There's one more potential hurdle.

Those who sign up for the Fair Elections Fund must also participate in at least two debates in the first round. Candidates who decline or otherwise fail to participate in the required number of debates have to return their remaining Fair Elections Fund money.

Under the fund's rules, qualifying debates have to be at least one hour in duration and be sponsored by at least one organization that is not affiliated with any political party or with any office holder or candidate, and has not endorsed a candidate this election cycle. Currently, the Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office is recruiting news organizations to host these debates.

"We have soft commitments, but the application process remains open until December 8," says Dillard.

In theory, the more debates, the better members of the public can get to know candidates.

"The League of Women Voters believes that debates and forums are good ways for voters to learn about candidates' values, positions and demeanor," says Beth Hendrix, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, which will be hosting mayoral debates in partnership with Channel 8 and Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Denver.

But in the past, to allow more in-depth discussions, media outlets hosting debates have often limited the featured candidates to those who've hit a certain threshold of funding. And that becomes trickier with the Fair Elections Fund. Under city rules, debate organizations must treat all Fair Elections Fund candidates equally and give them equal airtime. As a result, some of these debates might get unwieldy, according to Dominic Dezzutti, who organized and hosted debates when he was station manager at PBS12.

"Producing debates that include all candidates and actually feature information helpful for voters can be tremendously challenging. If you have twelve candidates, which is not an uncommon number, just giving each of them thirty seconds to introduce themselves takes six minutes. If you have an event for two hours and limit everyone to thirty-second answers and a closing statement, you realistically have time for fifteen questions. That seems reasonable at first blush. But remember, that offers no back-and-forth or rebuttals," says Dezzutti. "If any candidate uses their thirty seconds to answer a question about what they would do about the homeless problem by saying, 'Well, I would put them all on a bus and send them to Florida,' you have no opportunity to follow up.

"At that point, the debate is much more like a forum where candidates simply answer questions without rebuttals or followups," Dezzutti continues. "Candidate forums can have value for voters, but again, come with their own issues."

Just like the Fair Elections Fund. 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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