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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

$29 Of Your Money Per Vote: Are Voter Owned Elections Dead, Now?

Posted by Matt Davis on Wed, May 19, 2010 at 10:45 AM

The big story last night was the trouncing of Jesse Cornett. I was on KBOO this morning with Lisa Loving, trying to find the right word for it. The thrashing of Jesse Cornett? The whipping? What?

It's obviously embarrassing for me, personally, as the outgoing news editor of the only paper in town to endorse Cornett—either we were wrong to endorse him against City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, and if you read our reasons, I don't think we were, or none of you bloody voted. Which, I guess, speaks volumes.

More importantly than my embarrassment (hey, I'm used to it), or Cornett's, which I would imagine is considerable this morning, is the fact that Cornett's defeat cost $29 in your taxpayer dollars per vote.

At least $10,000 of that money went to Blue Oregon editor Kari Chisholm, who made a swift exit from the party as it became apparent that his social media advertising strategy had bombed.

You're going to vote on Voter Owned Elections, which financed Cornett's campaign, and has probably paid Chisholm's mortgage this month, come November. If you actually vote, I mean. And my question, this morning, is why on earth would anybody vote to support the existing system as it stands?

Cornett snuck next door last night to the Lucky Lab brewery at five minutes to eight o'clock to check the early returns on his MacBook. As the only candidate to qualify for $150,000 in public campaign financing out of the eight candidates challenging Saltzman in this May primary, Cornett was predicting he would bring in around 30 percent of the vote.

But the actual results were worse for Cornett than anybody had imagined: Saltzman snagged 55 percent of the vote, winning comfortably. Mary Volm, a prominent supporter of the effort to recall Mayor Sam Adams, had 12.7 percent, while Rudy Soto, a former Portland State University student body president who rarely showed up for debates on the campaign trail and ran his campaign almost exclusively on Facebook, had 7.3 percent of the vote. Cornett trailed them all with just 6.9 percent.

By press time last night, at 10:30, with all the precincts counted, Cornett had scored just 5,121 votes compared to Satlzman's 40,204—that works out to roughly $29 of taxpayer money per vote. I've talked to advocates for voter owned elections after the jump, and given a little context. Meanwhile, I'm interested:

ARE VOTER OWNED ELECTIONS DEAD NOW, OR WHAT?

Only two publicly-financed candidates have ever won election to Portland City Council: Erik Sten in 2006, who was an incumbent, and Amanda Fritz in 2008.

Nick Fish, a privately financed candidate, killed former Sten staffer Jim Middaugh in 2008, taking 61 percent of the vote to Middaugh’s 22 percent. Fritz, herself, ran against Saltzman with public financing in 2006, losing with 25 percent of the vote to privately-financed Saltzman’s 57 percent.

Even by the Goliath and David standards of Voter Owned Election (VOE) losses, however, Cornett’s mere 6.9 percent of the vote represents an absolute trouncing. Low voter turnout may have hurt his chances: only 24 percent of registered Multnomah County voters bothered to turn in their ballots for the election.

“This suggests that beating the incumbent is always hard,” says Janice Thompson, executive director of Common Cause Oregon—who will lead the charge to defend VOE when the system heads to voters in the fall.

“I think $150,000 makes it tough to defeat an incumbent,” says Middaugh, who lost to Fish in 2008.
“You’ve got to have the right mix of a good candidate and the right issues, and we didn’t have it this year.”

“I think I’m going to vote for it,” says Middaugh, when asked about whether he’ll support VOE in November. “But it’s worth taking a hard look at the system if you’re trying to reform things. What else can we do to give newcomers and non-incumbents a fair shake?”

The Oregonian’s conservative-leaning columnist Dave Lister had been predicting Saltzman’s victory, and Cornett’s defeat, for weeks.

“Voter Owned Elections are an incumbent protection program,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

Either way, Cornett’s defeat will certainly make life harder for defenders of the VOE system in the run-up to November.

Cornett’s crushing defeat was all anyone could talk about at Saltzman’s victory party across town at Curious Comedy Theater on Martin Luther King jr Blvd, although nobody would go on the record.

“I think the results speak for themselves,” said Saltzman’s chief of staff, Brendan Finn, staring intently at the television. Earlier, his boss, who Mayor Sam Adams fired last week from his job as police commissioner, told the Mercury he was “nervous” about the outcome of the vote.

My one thought is that if VOE made Saltzman nervous, that's a good thing. But I don't think it's enough. I mean, most people in politics are nervous, all the time.

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